I have always maintained that Hissing of Summer Lawns is the apotheosis of Joni Mitchell's art. Don't get me wrong, her catalog is consistently brilliant; even her unjustly ignored later work like Night Ride Home, Taming the Tiger, and Turbulent Indigo stands head and shoulders above any of the surrounding singer/songwriter fare. But Hissing is where it all came together: the jazz sensibility, the pop production, the pushing to the breaking point of melodies and lyric scans, without going over the edge. So I can't help but feel validated when noticing that three of the twelve Mitchell tunes covered on this CD are from that thirty-year-old masterpiece--more than any other record.
That said, the cast here holds no surprises save perhaps for the absence of avowed Mitchell fan, Sting, and the presence of newcomer Sufjan Stevens, whose cover of "Free Man in Paris" didn't hit me at first listening but grew on me with repeated spins. The ambition of the new arrangement and the herky jerky rhythms finally made me forget the swing of the original and accept this version on its own terms. Stevens is unfortunately one of the few artists here who seems to have absorbed the tune and made it more than superficially his own. Bjork's "Boho Dance" contains all the precious Bjork-isms that her fans adore. Unfortunately it also shows that when the fragile melodies of the songs on Hissing are wrenched from their original, integral rhythms they collapse in on themselves and disappear--unless, as in Steven's case, they are replaced with equally interesting ones. Elvis Costello sticks pretty close to the original melody in his reading of "Edith and the Kingpin," still managing to represent himself with his well-wrought horn arrangements. Brad Mehldau's abstract piano reading of "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow" is harmonically interesting but feels strangely stiff--odd, from the one actual jazz musician in the crew.
Brazilian Caetono Veloso makes the obvious choice of "Dreamland," taking off from the lyric "Propped up on a samba beat" to deliver a lesson in that South American groove. He wisely eliminates almost all instrumentation between his heavily accented vocals and the drums to allow the words to be understood. Sarah McLachlan, Annie Lennox and k.d. lang turn in fairly rote versions of "Blue," "Ladies of the Canyon," and "Help Me," respectively. Cassandra Wilson and James Taylor are possessed of styles similar enough in spirit to Mitchell's to comfortably make "For the Roses" and "River" sound like they wrote them, with small personal flourishes.
For this scribe, the two performances that are worth the price of admission are Emmylou Harris's reading of "The Magdelane Laundries" and Prince's house-wrecking take on "A Case of You."
Harris fittingly makes Mitchell's horror tale of abused "fallen" women sound like a dark, Appalachian folk ballad. And Prince takes "A Case of You" concurrently to church and the bedroom as only he can. Both these artists manage to fully respect the originals while turning in fresh and personal performances.
Mitchell's songs are not three-chord strum fests. Each of the artists here is sophisticated and schooled enough to not only play them but also adapt them--some more successfully than others. Both the successes and failures on A Tribute to Joni Mitchell serve as a fascinating proof that when the Canadian legend says that she belongs in the same league as Miles and Duke--not Jewel--it is no brag, just fact. • Michael Ross