Sarah McLachlan: Blue
Cat Power: Blue
Damned if I can find a transition song from one theme to the next this week - seems Joni's songs don't lend themselves to hand claps so easily - but I couldn't let the week drift by without sharing one of my favorite song transformations.
Blue is a maudlin song to begin with, a perfect piece of piano-based poetics in the original, with a tempo and vibrato that lurches exhaustedly, just like its narrator, and its lyrics. Cat Power's more recent cover uses light organ waves and distant vocals to bury the song in smooth, sultry smoke exquisitely, but it owes much to Sarah McLachlan's mid-nineties b-side take on the song, which uses echoing production, layered vocals and science fiction synth to freeze the song in ice without sacrificing its oddly unsatisfying rhythm, stretching the song out into chilly space where it suddenly, perfectly belongs.
Saturday, July 10, 2010
A Case of Joni:
Diana Krall [purchase] (although this version of the song is from the All-Star Tribute mentioned in my Carey post)
Sloan [I can't find this compilation CD, Back to the Garden: A Tribute to Joni Mitchell, for purchase anymore, but here's the tracklist...]
Karen Mal & Laurie McClain [purchase] - then click on the Music link
It is a week of harmonic convergence... as a Joni song was my first post (and a guest one, at that!) to Star Maker Machine a year and a half ago... and Darius commented then that we should one day present a theme of Joni covers - I even reference this song there: "the Christmas I gave my daughter the soundtrack to Practical Magic and later heard the strains of A Case of You (on repeat play) coming through the door of her bedroom was when I finally realized they had not switched babies on me in the hospital 16 years before"...
"Mitchell wrote and recorded A Case of You in 1971, during her early folk period. The song was first released on the 1971 album Blue. Mitchell later re-recorded it on her live album Miles of Aisles (1974). The song is found on Mitchell's Misses (1996), and Both Sides Now (2000) in an orchestral version featuring a new vocal by Mitchell. The recent release of the live album Amchitka - the 1970 concert that launched Greenpeace shows that the song was written earlier than 1971 as Mitchell performs a live version of "A Case of You" at the concert. The song is found on many bootleg recordings from her 1983 tour... The song appears in the films Truly, Madly, Deeply, Practical Magic, and Waking the Dead."
In doing some research to find proof that A Case of You is about Leonard Cohen (speculation runs rampant), I found a wonderful article about the relationship between Joni and Leonard - I will allow it to speak for itself...
These four versions provide a wide spectrum of interpretations:
~ Diana Krall's stunning rendition is a jazzy, piano-driven showcase...
~ Sloan's is straight up rock and roll...
~ Karen and Laurie's is "so bitter and so sweet", just as in the song... and yes, I am the Susan in Karen's dedication - they were on a tour of Florida and I presented them in a house concert in my living room. Karen and Laurie were using my house as home base and, during one free night, we decided to watch the PBS biography DVD, Woman of Heart and Mind (highly recommended!) - we drank wine (how fitting), wept through almost the entire film and they surprised me with this cover at their next gig (which ended up being recorded) a few days later at the Main Street Cafe...
~ Prince nails a bass-laden R&B gospel take, although I remain annoyed that he left out verses 1 and 2... the first of which is, in my opinion, one of the best beginnings *ever* in song:
Just before our love got lost you said
"I am as constant as a northern star"
And I said "Constantly in the darkness
Where's that at?
If you want me I'll be in the bar"
Celia Slattery: Chinese Café - Unchained Melody
After Court and Spark, Joni Mitchell got tired of everyone coming through her lyrics for details of her personal life. So, she started to create fictional characters for her songs, or stand back and write as an observer. But the narrator of Chinese Café/ Unchained Melody is clearly some version of Mitchell herself. The give-away is a couple of lines that refer back to the story Mitchell told in Little Green: “My child’s a stranger. I bore her, but I did not raise her.” The newer song is a meditation on aging. The narrator recalls her younger days and associates them with one song, Unchained Melody. She reflects on all that has changed since, all that has been lost. But still inside is that teenaged girl who heard Unchained Melody and dreamed. Celia Slattery sings the song with more sweetness than Mitchell, and her arrangement emphasizes the piano where Mitchell featured the guitar. But the bittersweet quality of the original survives nicely.
Friday, July 9, 2010
Cyndi Lauper: Carey
[unavailable for purchase]
First of all... a *major* heads-up to Bob Muller, who has painstakingly compiled and cataloged Joni Undercover, "3251 covers of 155 of Joni's songs done by 2518 different artists!" - the site is a comprehensive and invaluable clearinghouse for the various musical homages to Joni, in many different languages, some famous and most not so much...
This version of Carey came from An All-Star Tribute to Joni Mitchell, which aired on TNT Sunday, April 16, 2000 - I have Bob to thank for the audio of the priceless program, as it was never formally released...
Cyndi transforms the song from the joyful, rock-and-rolling dulcimer strum Joni originally offered into a slow, stripped-down seduction, reintroducing us to the beauty of the Grecian isle as well as the mischievousness of Carey, the mean old Daddy who she likes fine...
One common misconception is that the lyrics are "beneath the mantle of the moon" when it's actually "beneath the Matala moon" - synchronistically, the following appeared on the JMDL (Joni Mitchell Discussion List) today (thanks to PaulC!), which reinforced my desire to post this cover:
~ a video of Joni Mitchell's Matala, Crete... which features Joni's original...
~ Paul wrote: "here's an interesting companion site with comments by Joni herself from interviews and live song introductions - and a few interesting reminiscences from people who were actually living with and, in some cases, jamming with her in the Matala caves back then."
Maria Pia De Vito: God Must Be a Boogie Man
Probably, the Joni Mitchell album that is hardest to find covers from is Mingus. Two of the songs, Dry Cleaner From Des Moines and Goodbye Pork Pie Hat were originally done as instrumentals by Charles Mingus, so any versions of these must have her lyrics in order to qualify as Joni Mitchell covers. And these are the two most accessible songs on the album. The remaining songs are new, and they are “difficult”. They border on avant-garde jazz, with the rhythm often implied rather than stated, and these songs are a challenge to any who would attempt to cover them.
Maria Pia De Vito is a new name to me, but a little research reveals that she is one of the leading jazz singers in Europe. Here, you can hear why. De Vito solves the problem of covering God Must Be a Boogie Man by giving it more of a bop era arrangement. Then she proceeds to sing the heck out of it. This one will be a particular treat for fans of scat singing; there is a wonderful scat solo in the middle section of the song. This comes from the album So Right, which also contains six other Joni Mitchell covers to go with seven De Vito originals.
Image from Inga Scholes
Herbie Hancock, ft. Luciana Souza: Amelia
Dianne Reeves: River
Cassandra Wilson: For The Roses
Call this entry Jazz Does Joni, Part Two; The Vocalists.
On my last post I focused on tunes that ripped away the awesome lyrics of Joni's songs. For this go-round, I'm re-introducing them as interpreted by three terrific female jazz vocalists. Can I just say it was hard to pick only three? With Joni, we're spoiled for choice.
I waxed poetic about Herbie Hancock's "River" in my last post, and you lot all went out and bought it, didn't you? Well, you should have, IMHO. Because it was really hard to pick just one of the many tunes on that CD to feature today: do I go with Tina Turner or Norah Jones or Corinne Bailey Rae? Or even Joni herself? In the end, I went with my personal favorite: the Brazilian jazz artist Luciana Souza. There just isn't a better fit than this song and her slow, sultry alto. And listen up, there's Wayne Shorter's soprano sax again. Like Icarus ascending on beautiful foolish arms…
The next one's by a local gal (well, to me), Dianne Reeves, who hails from Boulder, Colorado. This song pops up on people's Christmas playlists, but to me it never seemed all that…restrictive, I guess. Meaning, it's not at all weird that I'm posting it on what for most of us is the hottest day so far all summer. So instead of noticing how it's so hot that your underwear is clinging to you like lichen, think of this frozen river, and ice skating, and how much we're all gonna be whining about how cold it is in a short 6 months.
Just now I noticed that all three of my choices are women who sing in the lower ranges of the female voice. Maybe that's because I myself sing in that range, so I can wail away to these songs in the privacy of my SUV, like you do. I mean, you all do that too, right? You're the people I see in my rear view mirror, mouthing words you alone can hear? Thought so. Wave at me next time, 'k? It'll be our secret. Me, I'll be singing to this one, by the supremely talented Cassandra Wilson. I've had this line running through my head all week: It was just the arbutus rusting, and the bumping of the logs, and the moon swept down black water like an empty spotlight… This is from a wonderful 2007 CD, "Tribute to Joni Mitchell", that also features other great artists like Prince, Sufjan Stevens, k.d. lang, Sarah McLachlan, and Emmylou Harris.
Thursday, July 8, 2010
Bob Dylan: Big Yellow Taxi
[out of print]
Dylan was Columbia's revenge album. It was 1973, and Bob had temporarily jumped ship for David Geffen's young Asylum Records. The album was assembled using outtakes from the recording sessions for the New Morning and Self-Portrait albums, and released a couple of months before Dylan's Asylum debut, Planet Waves. The album is mostly covers, none of which have ever supplanted the originals in the hearts of music lovers. Upon release, it was easily Bob's worst album, and is currently out of print.
"Big Yellow Taxi", on the other hand, is one of Joni Mitchell's most well-known songs. It was released in early 1970 (Bob's version was recorded in November of that year). The song's first three verses tackle ecological issues, themes that captured the growing eco-consciousness of the times. But being in the thick of the early '70s singer-songwriter movement, she changes focus from the global to the personal for the last verse, and it raises the song above the typical "issues" song, into something more universal and timeless.
Dylan takes some liberties with the lyrics, mostly without affecting the meaning. However, he radically alters the last verse, and it brings the song down a couple of notches in the process. Still, it's miles better than his version "The Boxer".
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Jason Falkner: Both Sides Now
[out of print; purchase more Falkner here]
As if we needed more evidence that Joni's songbook translates far beyond the genre boundaries of her native compositions, here comes Jason Falkner with his mid-nineties full-on third-wave punk-'n-roll b-side cover of Joni's Both Sides Now. And though artists tend to go gentle on this summery paean to clouds and love, as we might have expected from indie genius Falkner, taking it on with the hard stuff works really, really well.
You may not have heard Falkner's name, but odds are good you've heard his work. A multi-instrumentalist and producer who has worked with everyone from Jon Brion and Aimee Mann to Air, Beck, Susanna Hoffs, Brendan Benson, and Paul McCartney, the man's Wikipedia page reads a bit like that of a musical Zelig: founder of several bands that lived on beyond his efforts, player of all the instruments on Daniel Johnston's most recent album, and, inevitably, big in Japan. A true-blue genre chameleon, his lovely, gentle just-for-baby instrumental album Bedtime With The Beatles was our first child's first sleep soundtrack, and comes highly recommended.
Owen Duff: My Secret Place
[listen to more Owen Duff here]
The vast majority of Joni covers are of songs from the early part of her career. It’s as if, after the Hejira album, she suddenly stopped writing good songs. And of course, that is not what happened. So, I am sure my fellow Star Makers will have many more “early Joni” songs to finish the week, and I look forward to that. But I also want to draw attention to some of Mitchell’s later songs, because many of them are just as good.
Take My Secret Place. There comes a point in a successful relationship when you feel ready to join your lives together, and share everything. Mitchell reached that point, and married bass player Larry Klein. My Secret Place is a perfect description of that point in a relationship. You don’t think of Joni Mitchell that way, but she found happiness for a time, and she expressed it as beautifully as any emotional state in her songs.
Joni Mitchell’s website has a section listing all cover versions of any of her songs, over 3000 in all. Owen Duff is the only artist who has covered My Secret Place, and I don’t know why. Fortunately, he did a fine job.
Owen Duff is as indie an artist as you are likely to find. His songs are recorded in his home, and he plays all of the instruments himself. His version of My Secret Place starts with just voice, a delicate acoustic guitar part, and an electronic pulse. At what is an anxious point in a relationship, Duff projects a tentative quality at first. But the arrangement fills out as the narrator gains confidence, and the song ends on a strong note. This is going to work! Duff more than does the song justice.
I asked Duff how he came to record the song, and his answer is worth sharing:
“This particular cover I recorded as an experiment really - I like the song a lot and thought it would be interesting to try a more intimate approach, the original has quite a big sound with a lot of voices, so I did mine with just one close-miked vocal track (there are some overdubs at the end). I also wanted to try a more electronic sound out with the guitar, as I was between projects and experimenting with different kinds of production. The song I think was supposed to have been used in a film but wasn't in the end, so I had a sort of cinematic thing going in my head while I was recording as well - I wanted it to be intimate and cinematic at the same time! Lastly I'd say I prefer doing covers of lesser-known songs than well-known ones (although I have done covers of a couple of big pop songs), because I think people can find bad covers of their favourite songs almost sacrilegious, I know I do!”
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Monday, July 5, 2010
Herbie Hancock, ft. Wayne Shorter: Both Sides Now
Paul Desmond: Song to a Seagull
Joshua Redman: I Had a King
Let's check out some jazzy Joni covers, yeah? Here are three that focus on the saxophone. I used to play this amazing instrument, but sadly, none of the songs I ever learned were nearly as cool as these. It may seem counterintuitive to feature songs of a remarkable lyricist that have been stripped of the lyrics, but this allows us to focus on the melodies. Which are also remarkable, as we'll see.
I'll start with the low-hanging fruit. Herbie Hancock, the genius jazz keyboardist who's played with everyone who's anyone in the jazz world, released an entire tribute album to Joni in 2007, called "River: The Joni Letters." To everyone's surprise (except those of us who, you know, actually listened to it), Herbie's tribute ended up as the Grammy Album of the Year. How could it not? I'm going with one of the few instrumentals on the CD, but even then, it features Wayne Shorter, who is every bit as awesomesauce as Herbie. If you're a Steely Dan fan, you've heard him on "Aja". If you're a jazz fan, you know him from later Miles Davis, Weather Report, and, um, other Herbie Hancock recordings.
If you've ever listened to "Take Five," that idiosyncratic, arrhythmic, and classic ode to the 5/4 time signature, then you've heard Paul Desmond's alto saxophone. His was a defining musical voice of West Coast (aka Cool) Jazz. Here's his 1973 take on one of Joni's earliest songs, recorded before even Joni herself began to follow the jazz muse of her later work. And if you pay attention to these sorts of things, Grammy winner Don Sebesky is the arranger.
Another west-coast jazz musician, this one a son of saxman Dewey Redman, gives us our last saxophone tribute to Joni. Joshua Redman has other credits to his name, including the PBS TV shows Arthur and Reading Rainbow, and, and, and OMG he's the saxophonist on the anime series Cowboy Bebop, an oeuvre from which I'll try to work in songs in future posts….oh, where was I? Oh, right. Here's a 1998 Joni cover.
Sunday, July 4, 2010
Holly Brook: All I Want
[unreleased; more Holly Brook here]
Jay Brannan: All I Want
Natalie Merchant: All I Want
[out of print; more Natalie Merchant here]
We have an unwritten rule of sticking to older, more classic recordings here on Star Maker Machine. But as caretaker for the collaborative, I'm hereby declaring all eras on the table for the week - after all, in the case of coverage, it's the originals that are timeless.
And how else to showcase a song that seems to work best in the hands of an under-thirty new generation? For though I very much like 32-year-old Natalie Merchant's 1995 conga-driven acoustic-funkified b-side, two relatively recent takes on one of my favorite Joni songs have turned out to be my favorites, simply by turning up the sweetness and light on one of the most cheerful songs in the canon.
Twenty year old Holly Brook's live rarity, recorded backstage at SXSW 2006 for MVYRadio, is airy and innocent and utterly gorgeous, proving that the appalachian dulcimer - Joni's chosen instrument for her own original - does delicacy, too. Meanwhile, YouTube-driven fan favorite Jay Brannan, recording last year for his mostly-covers second studio release at 27, goes for the slow and languid approach, transforming the chord-oriented original into fingerplucked gold, his pure, gentle voice cutting through the clutter of wistful, innocent love.
I just posted four versions of Woodstock for our Summertime theme, just over a week ago, and here I am again. What gives? Well, Woodstock is in New York, and it is one of Joni Mitchell’s signature tunes. But more than that, these two versions add something to the conversation. Each one finds something in the song that the versions I previously posted did not. That’s because Joni Mitchell’s writing is that rich.
Richard Thompson: Woodstock
[unavailable for purchase]
Richard Thompson should need no introduction, but he gets one here. This one comes from a Joni Mitchell tribute concert originally presented on TNT, and I must thank FiL for sending it to me. Thompson plays the song solo, with only his guitar playing for accompaniment. He replaces Mitchell’s parts with an instrumental line that is pure Richard Thompson. Thompson always sings with at least a hint of sorrow in his voice. His Woodstock presents the idealism of Mitchell’s original as a memory of something that was noble, but didn’t pan out.
Big Country: Woodstock
[unavailable for purchase]
Big Country’s Woodstock comes from a radio station performance. In the way of these things, the band plays acoustic, with bongos instead of drums. Here, the idealism of the song is intact. This one seems to me to exemplify the communal spirit of both the song and the festival. There is an almost naïve quality to this performance that perfectly suits the song.