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Wednesday, June 13, 2007 12:45 pm

Takes a weirdo to understand weird

Joni Mitchell gets a long-overdue tribute album

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Various Artists A Tribute to Joni Mitchell (Nonesuch)
Untitled Document It seems unimaginable that Joni Mitchell, one of the most influential singer/songwriters of the latter part of the previous century, hasn’t received the tribute-album treatment until now, but it’s true. A victim of label consolidation and executive turnover, the unimaginatively titled A Tribute to Joni Mitchell languished in limbo for nearly a decade, until Nonesuch president Bob Hurwitz decided to resurrect it. The result is a wildly inconsistent jumble of tracks that were recorded at the project’s inception, tracks that were recorded as late as last year, and tracks that have already appeared on other albums. Collectively, the contents are both wildly inconsistent and strangely constricted: The featured artists are the very definition of a motley crew (do Björk and James Taylor even qualify as the same species?), but the source material doesn’t begin to represent Mitchell’s wide-ranging canon. There are three songs from 1971’s Blue, three from 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and two from 1974’s Court and Spark; the only offering that isn’t at least 20 years old is from 1994’s Turbulent Indigo. It’s hard to dismiss the importance of Mitchell’s 1970s output, but even as far as that decade goes the selection isn’t very deep. Why nothing from Hejira or Mingus? A Tribute to Joni Mitchell isn’t a terrible album, just an uneven and sometimes disappointing one. Truth be told, its flaws probably have to do less with its execution than with its subject. Prickly, paradoxical, and deeply idiosyncratic, Mitchell might be the weirdest performer ever to have scored a Top 10 radio hit. Many have mimicked her bird-call coloratura, but it takes more than a freakishly flexible mezzo-soprano range to match her style. With her off-kilter phrasing and her crystalline pitch, her ruthless irony and her naked empathy, her jazzbo patter and her coffeehouse confessionals, Mitchell is essentially inimitable. The only way to honor her work is to make something entirely new from it. In short, it takes a weirdo to understand a weirdo. Love her or hate her, there’s no denying that Björk is every bit as peculiar as Mitchell, and although her twinkling celesta-driven version of “The Boho Dance” sounds very different from the original, it’s a triumph. Acerbic but not unsympathetic, the song is a study in exquisitely modulated emotional dynamics, the narrator’s sharp-eyed critique of conformity among nonconformists giving way to a melancholy acceptance. Prince, another card-carrying freak, deftly captures the collision of sacred and profane in “A Case of You,” replacing Mitchell’s acoustic guitar with gospel-steeped piano and organ. He cuts out most of the verses, but he totally nails those lines that he deigns to include, squeezing out every last drop of blood and holy wine with that lubricious falsetto of his. If his reading lacks the solemn psalmlike quality of the original, it makes the transition from cathedral to revivalist tent without sacrificing a smidge of its power. Other highlights include Brazilian oddball Caetano Veloso’s deceptively languid percussion-centered take on “Dreamland,” a sly condemnation of colonialism; Annie Lennox’s lustrous, exotic, electronica-laced “Ladies of the Canyon,” Mitchell’s homage to hippie-chick domesticity; and jazz diva Cassandra Wilson’s spare, sepulchral “For the Roses,” a minor-key lament about one of Mitchell’s pet topics, the moral bankruptcy of fame. Aside from Taylor’s listless, drippy “River” and Sarah McLachlan’s florid, borderline parodic “Blue,” most of the remaining songs range from pretty good to halfway decent. If nothing else, the album invites listeners to reacquaint themselves with Mitchell’s vast and eclectic catalog, still the best tribute to her talent that exists.  
Contact René Spencer Saller at rssaller@core.com.
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