Off the Beaten Path looks at covers of songs from a less popular era in an artist’s career.
The ’80s were a markedly confusing and dark time for many of the music world’s more established and beloved artists. The new decade brought a seismic shift in pop sights and sounds that included the arrival of “The Second British Invasion” in the U.S., featuring the likes of Duran Duran, Eurythmics and Culture Club. This guy called Prince began his reign/rain, and Madonna Louise Ciccone launched her complete world takeover. And oh yeah, there was this other thing, a behemoth called MTV that took near complete control of music culture (as well as my own teen brain). The garish, glossy videos they showed 24/7 became as crucial to an artist’s success as radio airplay. And so, like some musical equivalent of Logan’s Run, any musician over 30 suddenly seemed genuinely old indeed. The acoustic sounds that had been so mega and pervasive only a handful of years before all of a sudden sounded criminally dated.
This need to sound “modern” to stay relevant proved to be problematic for many of the established rock and pop superstars of the ’60s and ’70s, resulting in some marginally disastrous sonic (I’m talkin’ to you, synths) and sartorial decisions (up go the jacket sleeves). Of course, some artists were able to transition and/or evolve with enormous success as the ’80s progressed (Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, even, surprisingly, The Kinks), as well as some who, while not necessarily progressive soundwise, resoundingly found their niche as the decade evolved (Linda Ronstadt). But others stumbled. Hard.
Many of the albums released by these previously beloved artists during the shiny ’80s have come to be regarded (some instantly, upon release) as the absolute worst of their respective careers. Check out any career-spanning album ranking list and you will invariably find Neil Young’s Trans and Everybody’s Rockin’, Paul McCartney’s Pipes of Peace and Press to Play, the Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work, Elton John’s Ice on Fire, Leather Jackets, and Reg Strikes Back, David Bowie’s Tonight and Never Let Me Down, and all seven of Bob Dylan’s studio albums released in the decade firmly lodged at the bottom of each respective list. In some cases, it’s totally justified (I’m a Macca apologist and believe me, I get it). Let’s just say that the overall song quality offered on these releases is not up to the previously set standards of any of those artists. But like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, there’s one particular name that gets swept into this reflexive “everyone sucked in ’80s” judgement parade, whose songs from the time did not in fact suck: Joni Mitchell.
While her run of pre-1980 albums is unimpeachable (apart from 1979’s ponderous Mingus), Joni’s latter-day releases, beginning with 1982’s Wild Things Run Fast are generally dismissed as lesser lights. This is mostly due to their glossy, synthesized production and occasionally clumsy political observations… but there’s some elitism at work in this criticism as well. Fact is, a lot of songs within this stretch of albums are straight up pop tunes, critical kryptonite, and didn’t align with what was expected of her, with their fat choruses, beats, and innumerable cameos.
Since 1982, Joni has released a total of nine studio albums, and the stretch from the aforementioned Wild Things through to 1994’s Turbulent Indigo in particular feature some absolute masterpieces, songs that can easily hold their heads up next to anything on Blue, Court and Spark, or Hissing of Summer Lawns. And while she herself as admitted to being influenced by the sounds around her in the ’80s, The Police and Talking Heads in particular, the songs on these albums are still intrinsically Joni Mitchell, virtuosically poetic, melodic and memorable.
In her short essay for the booklet that accompanied The Complete Geffen Recordings box set (pointedly titled “The Lost Years”) which featured the four studio albums she recorded for the label from 1982-1991, Joni states, “For one reason or another they (the albums) were viewed as being out of sync with the ’80s. But I was out of sync with the ’80s. Thank God! To be in sync with these times was to be degenerating both morally and artistically.”
Now let’s dig into some staggeringly wonderful covers of songs from that maligned era. Here’s to being out of sync…
Ron Sexsmith – My Secret Place (Joni Mitchell cover)
Before there were “quarantine covers,” there was wondrous singer-songwriter’s Ron Sexsmith’s YouTube channel Rawnboy aka Ron Sings. For the past six years, Sexsmith has been posting lo-fi acoustic performances of songs from his own catalog, as well as an eclectic and ridiculously fun bunch of cover versions. In terms of the latter, while he features more traditional fare like Dylan and The Beatles, he also offers up a ton of glorious ’70s AM radio classics, as well as deep cuts from personal faves like The Kinks, Warren Zevon…and Joni Mitchell. His Joni covers range from the familiar to the more obscure and are the height of simplicity and loveliness. Case in point: this stunning version of “My Secret Place,” the opening track off 1988’s Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm and one of Joni’s most underrated, swoon-some and romantic tunes. The song was originally done as a duet between she and Peter Gabriel, their voices woven so tightly together in timbre and style that they sound like a single narrator (that was the idea, according to Joni). Sexsmith’s solo bare-bones version perfectly captures the songs theme of letting someone in, in utterly embraceable and tear-jerking fashion.
Emmylou Harris – The Magdalene Laundries (Joni Mitchell cover)
2007’s A Tribute to Joni Mitchell featured a star-studded cast, who mostly stuck with the hits. While not seminal, it was a good, competent compilation that was blessed with a few truly fine and notable highlights. Speaking of which, while the contributions from Prince, and kd lang were particularly fine, it was especially cool to hear Emmylou Harris pushing the envelope, stepping out and tackling a latter-day, lesser-known Joni track, the epic and heart-wrenching “Magdalene Laundries” from 1994’s Turbulent Indigo.
In the mid-nineties Emmylou’s sound had undergone an abrupt and ultimately brilliant stylistic shift with the release of the Daniel Lanois-produced Wrecking Ball, moving away from the country and stark folk of her past to more alternative, atmospheric and gothic sound environs. The “new” sound totally suited her, and from that point forward she proceeded to kick out a series of impeccable albums utilizing that same sonic sensibility. Her positively regal version of “Magdalene Laundries” is cut from that same cloth, and the song itself is oh-so-perfectly suited to that raw and handsome trademark latter-era Emmylou vocal style.
Silas Bürgi – Cherokee Louise (Joni Mitchell cover)
“Cherokee Louise” from 1991’s Night Ride Home, features an upbeat melody that belies its dark storyline of childhood sexual abuse. It mystifyingly manages to be poetic, melodic, and horrifying at the same time, and it features some of Joni’s most head-shakingly stunning lyrical turns (“but I know where she’ll go, to the place where you can stand and press your hands like it was bubble bath in dust piled high as me”). Over a plush, glistening production, Swiss musician Silas Bürgi sings the song with a genuine passion, respect and earnestness. His version literally emits light and it is superb (and I need to give a special nod to the particularly fine and ridiculously complimentary piano runs).
Sidetone: make sure to take a listen to Joni’s jaw-droppingly beautiful reinvention of the song on 2002’s Travelogue album, which featured orchestral reinterpretations of songs from her entire catalog; it’s beauty comes damn near close to eclipsing the original.
Janet Jackson – The Beat of Black Wings (Joni Mitchell cover)
Back in 1999, Warner-Reprise had planned to release a Joni Mitchell tribute album, but for some reason it ended up being shelved. Though it was never officially released, some the tracks recorded for it found their way onto the aforementioned A Tribute to Joni Mitchell album that arrived 8 years later. The tracks that didn’t make it that far and have yet to be officially released in any capacity were actually some of the more curious and intriguing offerings. Amongst the missing in action were Lindsey Buckingham’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” Etta James’s “Amelia” (not currently on any streaming service, help!), and this, Janet Jackson’s version of one of Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm‘s finest, “The Beat of Black Wings.” The song was inspired by a real-life encounter Joni had with a Vietnam Veteran who angrily confronted her backstage after a performance at Fort Bragg in the late ’60s. It’s another example of an upbeat melody married to cynical, bitter lyrical content. But despite its being an intense and incredible song, its swooshing synth lines and intrinsically ’80s production flourishes (including Benjamin Orr of The Cars on backing vocals) have officially relegated it to the b-team in the Joni canon, as in you won’t see it mentioned in any of those all-time greatest songs by Joni lists (a fate unfairly endured by a lot of her post-’70s output).
Janet’s version is faithful arrangement-wise and sung in the typically warm and delicate style she utilizes on her beauteous ballads. To hear the unadulterated queen of dance-pop doing something so overtly political and angry (yet poetic) and singing pointedly emotional lines like “I can’t even hear the f*ckin’ music playing” is kind of amazing.
Forgive me, but I need to flex for a second. Back in 2006, I asked Janet if she knew why this song and the planned tribute album were never released. She sighed and said she didn’t know, but that she was disappointed because a lot of people had worked really hard on it (I sensed she was slightly perturbed about it – but hey, I was too because I was dying to hear it!). I told her to get it on a b-side ASAP.
Tim Neuhaus – Night Ride Home (Joni Mitchell cover)
In terms of latter-day Joni songs that get covered, 1991’s “Night Ride Home” has proven to be an extremely popular choice. Its wistful romance, memorable melody, and otherworldly magical late night lights on a Hawaiian road all aglow have made it undeniable cover catnip for the acoustic set (though most of them skip the original’s backing vocals from an actual cricket whom Joni deservedly, awesomely credited in the liner notes of The Complete Geffen Recordings box set).
Out of the innumerable versions on offer, German indie rocker Tim Neuhaus’s is exceptionally lovely. With his slightly ragged, whispery vocal, he keeps things simple and sweet, while also serving up some pretty exquisite guitar playing.
Lori Cullen – Two Grey Rooms (Joni Mitchell cover)
If one song could truly be said to be a latter-day Joni classic right up there with “A Case of You” and “River,” it is 1991’s “Two Grey Rooms.” A plush ballad of despair and obsession, it was inspired by a magazine story Joni read about a man who never got over a love from his younger years and ultimately decides to live out the rest of his days watching this former love secretly from an apartment across from where his beloved works. It’s both evocative and gorgeous. Fittingly there have been a couple of seriously stellar covers making it difficult to single out just one as “the best.”
Lori Cullen’s transcendent voice travels well, sounding routinely beautiful no matter what the musical surroundings. She’s done a number of covers over the course of her career, with her takes on King Crimson and Judee Sill being particular standouts. Joni is one of Cullen’s musical heroes, and her version of “Two Grey Rooms” is truly sublime and perfectly captures the song’s innate melancholy.
Luca Manning (w/Fergus McCreadie) – Two Grey Rooms (Joni Mitchell cover)
But while we’re here, I also want to shine a light on the beauteous bare-bones version of the song offered up by Scottish singer Luca Manning (with pianist Fergus McCreadie), as it is equally stunning.
It should be noted that Chaka Khan has performed “Two Grey Rooms” live on multiple occasions, including at the recent Joni 75 celebration, making it pretty safe to assume she will be including it on her forthcoming album of Joni covers (fingers crossed!).
Los Lobos & La Marisoul (w/ Cesar Castro & Xochi Flores) – Nothing Can Be Done (Joni Mitchell cover)
Since suffering an aneurysm in 2015, Joni had spent several years recuperating and out of the public eye. But in November of 2018, she made a surprise appearance at a 75th Birthday Tribute titled Joni 75, in her honor. Her presence was a surprising and utterly thrilling sight to behold, as there had been so little information made public regarding the progress of her recovery. Finally there was beautiful, undeniable proof her health was on the upswing (which has since been confirmed by friends like Chaka).
One of the best performances at that event came from Los Lobos and La Santa Cecilia singer La Marisoul, who collaborated on a cover of 1991’s “Nothing Can Be Done.” The stuttering, shuffling and sleek pop song was a co-write between between Joni and producer-musician (and at the time, husband) Larry Klein and showcased some wickedly fun vocal interplay between Joni and guest David Baerwald, each pushing the other to go higher and louder as the song progresses.
La Marisoul’s vocal on the version performed at the Joni 75 show is absolutely smokin’, getting more raw and intense as the song progresses which is unsurprising with the fab and inspired Los Lobos behind her. Go on, girl.
Samantha Sklar – Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody (Joni Mitchell cover)
“Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody,” from 1982’s Wild Things Run Fast, is kind of a difficult song to cover, for despite its beauteous melody and interpolation of evergreen classic “Unchained Melody,” its words are very specific to Joni’s own life experiences, with one lyric directly referring to her daughter whom she’d placed into adoption in 1965 (years later, they would be reunited). But Samantha Sklar delivers the ballad of changing, aging and emotional rock ‘n roll roots with a truly handsome clarity and dignity; it’s exceptionally fine.
Furious Zoo – Sex Kills (Joni Mitchell cover)
We’re going to end on a polarizer, which is to say you will either absolutely hate this or it will cause you to grin involuntarily. If you ever wanted to hear one of Joni’s darkest, most critical readings of human failure done AOR style and sounding not unlike John Parr fronting Foreigner, today is your lucky day. French hard-rockers Furious Zoo are clearly feelin’ it, in their version of “Sex Kills” from 1994’s Turbulent Indigo album, growling, rasping and rocking their way through like heavy metal bulls in a china shop. But honestly, it’s best not to think too much and just accept its heart-on-sleeve earnestness because, despite the subject matter, it’s a fun thing, and the fact that they chose to cover it at all is just plain cool.
Great concept, great writing, great finds!