Friday, April 4, 2014

Who Are These People Who Are Doing A Tribute To Joni Mitchell?!

The Good: Moments of vocals, Joni Mitchell's lyrics
The Bad: Simplistic instrumentals, Inappropriately bubbly vocals on moody songs, Nothing at all inspired.
The Basics: When a group of unknowns cover Joni Mitchell, the result is an album that is a bland recreation of Mitchell's songs to a pop-rock beat that is pretty lousy.

When I got in my stack of Joni Mitchell c.d.s to start reviewing, I thought it was possible I had gotten in a bum c.d. with Came Upon A Child Of God - A Tribute To Joni Mitchell. After all, it was a cover album with artists presenting Joni Mitchell songs, but there were no liner notes, no acknowledgments of who the artists were performing and it did not take much in the way of listening to this disc to figure out why. Came Upon A Child Of God - A Tribute To Joni Mitchell is a tribute album, but the artists are unknowns and this is little more than an album available that presents karaoke type performances to fairly generic instrumentals of Mitchell's songs.

In other words, this is a cover album of the same caliber of A String Quartet Tribute To Oasis Actually, that style tribute at least takes people playing instruments to sell the concept; Came Upon A Child Of God does not have evidence that even that much went into the production. Dressed To Kill produced the album in England and they provide no information about the disc other than the track listing.

With ten tracks clocking in at 38:09, Dressed to Kill's Came Upon A Child Of God is a collection of some of the popular favorites of singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. I shall be completely straightforward on this count: the Joni Mitchell albums I have listened to the last few weeks did not include all of the original versions of the songs included on this album, so it is hard to judge all of the songs as covers. As a result, I shall judge the album, as much as possible, by what it is.

Unfortunately for this disc, that does not work necessarily in the favor of it.

What Came Upon A Child Of God has are the lyrics of Joni Mitchell. Classic songs like "Big Yellow Taxi," "Woodstock," and Both Sides Now appear on the album and they are presented with Mitchell's lines. As a result, some of the songs I had not heard are presented in ways that they are entirely comprehensible.

So, for example, I had not heard "Cary" before and it has some decent lines. The song is about traveling around the world with a partner who they are not really in love with. In addition to describing eclectic places, the story song has the quirky lines, "Cary get out your cane / I'll get out some silver / You're a mean old daddy / But I like you fine" ("Cary"). I'm not sure why that exchange stuck out for me, but it did. It does illustrate Mitchell's somewhat eccentric streak and it works.

I had been surprised to hear "Chinese Cafe" because I did not realize that song was a Joni Mitchell song. Okay, here's the thing. Joni Mitchell has a song called "Chinese Cafe" that includes the lyrics to "Unchained Melody" - which is the part of it I had been recognizing. "Unchained Melody," for those as surprised as I, is a Joni Mitchell song and it is possibly best known for the cover of it that was done for the film "Ghost." Here is it covered by David Hay.

The songs range from the environmentally-conscious relationship song "Big Yellow Taxi" to the contemplative “Both Sides Now” to the direct plea "Help Me." There are the more obscure tracks like "Cary" and "You Turn Me On" and "River." As I understand it, the track "Chelsea Morning" was one more associated with another artist's cover of Joni Mitchell's lyrics.

Okay, I've pussyfooted around this review for far too long. I'm surprised to see that there are so many participants on this tribute album because "Came Upon A Child Of God" sounds like it only has two artists, the female voice (Vera Haime) and a male voice on two of the tracks (David Hay). Every single track on the album sounds like it is by one of those two people. In other words, the vocals are presented in a way that makes them appear identical to one another! This is an album that is terrible in regards to presenting vocals that are distinctive. Eight of the tracks have the same bubbly feminine voice and it's strange to believe that only three of them truly are Vera Haime.

The vocals range between nondescript (David Hay presents a strangely casual sounding, upbeat take on "Chinese Cafe") and terribly misapplied. Treasure presents Both Sides Now with an upbeat, perky sound that completely guts the emotional resonance of the song. Instead of being contemplative and deep, it is upbeat and ridiculous. It sounds almost like a carnival ride soundtrack, so perky is the voice presenting that song.

Similarly, the sound of "Woodstock" is not one that is anywhere near as moody or interesting as Joni Mitchell's original. I have no problem with making a song one's own. I frequently cite the way Sophie B. Hawkins took Bob Dylan's track "I Want You" on her debut, Tongues And Tails (reviewed here!) and completely reinterpreted it. It's magnificent and it sounds nothing like the original. "Woodstock" on this album is not reinterpreted that way, it is simply an upbeat version of the song and it does not reveal anything deeper or more interesting about the song. Instead, this album has the feeling of artists who are afraid or unable to go dark.

Musically, this album is a disappointing homogenous presentation of guitar-driven covers. They all sound the same because Mitchell's more complicated (and less complicated) tracks are all presented with the standard "guitar/bass/piano/drums" standards that define bland and typical pop-rock these days. In fact, that's the real aspect of Came Upon A Child Of God most likely to disturb Joni Mitchell fans; these tracks take classic folk rock songs and transforms each and every one of them into a bland and disappointing pop rock presentation that lacks inspiration and any sense of musical vision.

The problem with Came Upon A Child Of God is that there's no suggestion of why the artists felt the need to cover the songs and what they hope to add to the body of the collective unconscious or music in general by presenting this work. Instead, it feels like a cheap album assembled to make a buck. None of the tracks pop with any musical insight and it's unfortunate that Mitchell (presumably) signed off on this project.

Fans of Mitchell's works will likely be disappointed by the lack of emotional resonance in the tracks on this collection. Casual listeners would also do better to get the songs the way they were originally presented. This whole album reminds me of the traumatic experience of hearing a calypso version of "Wind Beneath My Wings" in the Bahamas. Everything on this album is pretty much that off.

The best track is "Cary," the worst is "This Flight Tonight."


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© 2014, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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