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Too Good To Be True
on 7 March 2008
Herbie Hancock's River looks too good to be true. And so it turns out.
Hitherto I've generally avoided covers of Joni Mitchell songs, mainly because I've been for so long convinced that few people are able to improve on perfection. It would, as they say, be gilding the lily. A few exceptions come to mind: Matthew's Southern Comfort's Woodstock and Nazareth's This Flight Tonight, both of which I heard before Mitchell's, so they almost exist as different songs. CSN&Y make Woodstock sound as if it was written for them, which in a way I guess it was, and Cassandra Wilson's Black Crow is nothing short of sublime. Otherwise, nothing stands out.
But there are so many people on this record I totally revere, not least Hancock himself and Mitchell, of course, who sings on Tea Leaf Prophecy, I just had to take a listen. Unfortunately, somehow, the chemistry isn't right.
Norah Jones does her regular Norah Jones impersonation on Court and Spark, the opening song. I'm going to declare right here and now that I generally quite like the impersonation, even though I think she needs to find a new one, but here it doesn't work. It's just the wrong voice.
I first heard the original of the next song, Edith And The Kingpin, on a radio programme hosted by Joe Jackson. It was the first time I ever woke up to Mitchell as someone of lasting significance. But Tina Turner's interpretation is by contrast quite ephemeral. In one ear, out the other. Again, I have a ton of respect for Turner herself. But here she's working by rote, and some of the words just don't sound natural - "Sophomore jive" is sung as if they're words in a foreign language she has absolutely no understanding of.
Corinne Bailey Rae, track four, then manages to make River sound like a Christmas song, as if it's the new Jingle Bells. Lovely voice, but again totally wrong. Like most of the songs on Blue, Mitchell dug deep into her soul when she wrote River, and it rarely fails to leave me unaffected. This version is water off a duck's back.
It hurts me to say all this, of course, because these songs and most of the artists participating on the project inhabit the highest levels of my musical pantheon, but not even some capable tinkling on Hancock's keyboard, a fair degree of saxophone virtuosity from Wayne Shorter, and the appearance by the lady herself, can drag this collection anywhere near the Essential Listening zone.