Sunday, July 2, 2017

On Joni Mitchell's Mediocre Version Of Last

Listening to Joni Mitchell's At Last, track 2, from Both Sides Now. The song was written in 1941, as a movie song and performed since as a standard. 

Musical Intro: perfect.

First few lines, compare to Etta James's definitive version. JM doesn't bring out the Etta's full throated, full bodied joy. She's pallid and ordinary in comparison. She has no life in her singing. Compared to Etta James, she sounds small. 

Now getting into it, her phrasing isn't terrible but it's nothing special. 

"My heart... that line, nothing interpretive in it. At this point she's basically mouthing the words, singing without feeling.

The music is great.  

"A dream to call my own... Here again her voice is flat, not as flat as in sharps and flats, but flat as in undramatic, and her voice tends to drag lifelessly even as the musical accompaniment is wonderfully rich and comes to her partial rescue. 

"I found a thrill to press ....Same comment. Not thrilling. Nothing thrilling conveyed.

Then she goes on a bit till "I found my love at last..." and a pattern emerges as I hear it with some flat lifeless singing then her taking a shot at some dramatic emphasis that is ok but a shadow of Etta James. 

"I found a dream that I could speak to..." an incompetently sung line as her voice just drags lifelessly. When Etta James does it, you hear and feel her emergence from weariness. Something, a bit like,  but not exactly, the way you do when Aretha Franklin's soul is rescued from the "lost and found." Or at least I do. 

"A dream to call my own..." same criticism as just above. I have never known... what I'm hearing hear is effortful singing to try to get at an effect, not natural or organic emotion in the singing. So different from how marvellously she sings her own songs.

So it's a serviceable version. She's too good a singer to sink below that.

If you look at the lyrics, they're quite trite and sentimental. But Etta James, who can sing great in most styles, takes them and makes something urgent and passionate out of them. Joni Mitchell much less so, to my ears. She can't do with this song, that holds the possibility of a great version if the singer can get past the corny images in the lyrics--say the way Cassandra Wilson does with so many pop songs, like the Monkees' Last Train To Clarksville--what Etta James does with it. 


Which is my thesis relative to this record, that JM is only so so with the ballads and standards on it. 

I'll agree that it's unlikely that Etta James could do Mitchellian justice to JM's hallmark songs, but that's irrelevant to my thesis.


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