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Travelogue is a 2002 concept album by the Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. After the success of Both Sides Now in 2000 which featured orchestral re-recordings of jazz staples, Travelogue turns its gaze to her own back catalogue and offers orchestral re-recordings of twenty-two of her (mostly acoustic guitar driven folk) songs from down the decades. It's an interesting idea but ultimately does sometimes make you wonder what the point of it all was when you have the originals to listen to. The album begins with Otis and Marlene and the orchestration immediately benefits by eschewing the jazz trappings that were a constant on Both Sides Now, the strings in particular adding a nice widescreen and bittersweet aura to the song. Joni Mitchell's voice is much huskier than the old days and it's a shame that she can't hit and hold those high notes anymore but it still has a lot of charm with a distinctive sound. I think her native Canadian accent seems to come through more and more in her singing as she gets older and it stops her sounding too generic without the uncanny falsetto of days gone by. Very Joni Mitchell abstract lyrics here. "That girl is travel drained and the neon mercury vapor stained Miami sky, it's red as meat." Amelia was a lovely acoustic song from Hejira about the famous ill-fated aviator Amelia Earhart and although the gentle and wistful nature of the song makes it work as a orchestral piece with John Barry-esque strings you can't help but compare it to the original and mourn slightly for the Joni Mitchell of old. Her more conventional vocals are still good by any standards but the ghost of her younger self is always hovering around this reworking of what is a great song. You Dream Flat Tires is a big brassy jazz infused song taken from a later Joni Mitchell album that I haven't got around to yet. So I can't compare it to the original but this version certainly didn't do an awful lot for me. I can see why Joni Mitchell is interested in jazz as it suits the melancholic moods of her songs and also feels like a more natural backdrop for her 2 o'clock in the morning lower slung voice but this just felt too generic to me and the whimsical horns got on my nerves in the end.
Love is much more straight ahead with a more traditional orchestra and Joni Mitchell delivering a ballad in the crooning style. I liked this and found it very glossy and pleasant although like most of the songs here it goes on for over five minutes and does run the risk of outstaying its welcome once or twice. Joni Mitchell's vocal is very rich and affecting. It's the sort of thing you could imagine on a film soundtrack. Woodstock is a new version of a 1969 Joni Mitchell single about the famous music festival. She never actually went to Woodstock because her manager told her to appear on The Dick Cavett Show instead so watched the reports on television instead with a growing feeling that she had made a mistake by not turning up. With lines like "We are billion year old carbon" this is a haunting and impressive song that was originally performed in a very spartan late sixties folk song fashion. The new big band version here is a different beast and can't possibly be as good but this was another updated rendition on Travelogue that I enjoyed. The core spirit of the song and its melodies and chorus all come through again despite the much larger sound that surrounds it. Slouching Toward Bethlehem is based on a poem by Yeats and was I believe originally adapted by Joni Mitchell in the late eighties. I haven't heard that version but this orchestral reboot was rather tiresome for me with irritating wails of instrumentation from an over busy orchestra and Joni Mitchell having to sing a lot faster than usual to keep up but lacking that soft gentle playfullness of old, that unique sense of phrasing. And the song goes on for over seven minutes!
Judgement of the Moon and Stars is taken from the album For the Roses. The original is a piano weepie that goes on for a long time and the orchestra strewn rebranding of the song here is surprisingly good. Joni Mitchell sounds tantalisingly like her younger self at times here (although some of those notes are now just out of reach, to be vainly clutched at on tiptoe) and the gently building epic nature of the song works very well for this concept album. The Sire of Sorrow (Job's Sad Song) is an eight minute version of a solid Joni Mitchell staple and I really like her vocal here. It begins in winning fashion but started to lose me a little with a male voice choir chipped in and one of the musical arrangements sounded alarmingly like the theme tune to The A-Team for a minute or so. Maybe it was just my imagination. I can't really picture Joni Mitchell watching The A-Team. For the Roses goes more jazzy again with a fifties crooning style. A nice vocal although the horns could have piped down a bit as far as I was concerned. Trouble Child is in the same vein too. a very laid back and measured vocal with more of a jazz backdrop although the strings seem more whimsical here to give the song more of a kooky arrangement. Not really one of my favourites. God Must Be a Boogie Man was never one of my favourite Joni Mitchell songs in the original incarnation and it forms the last part of what seemed to be an off kilter jazz trilogy in the middle of the album. This has a bee boppy atmosphere and wasn't something I could put up with for very long at all. Be Cool is more accessible with the big band sound more restrained and in key with the vocals. Joni Mitchell dips a little with her voice and sounds more relaxed and honeysome. Just Like This Train continues the more relaxed aura and once again the vocal is softer and even once or twice sounds uncannily like the Joni Mitchell of old. A pleasant enough reconception of the song. Sex Kills is a new rendition of a song from the album Turbulent Indigo. It really isn't a Joni Mitchell song that I like an awful lot even first time around, coming across as agit-prop and too obstreperous for the singer, and so this didn't do an awful lot for me although the vaguely ominous initial strains of the song are modestly arresting when performed by an orchestra.
Refuge of the Roads has a fairly self-explanatory title and was a beautiful song from the amazing album Hejira. I don't think Refuge of the Roads gains anything from having an orchestra and new Joni Mitchell vocal but the instrinsic beauty of the song is impossible to diminish and so this is certainly pretty and grand sweeping stuff. Hejira is decent enough too and benefits from the lack of jazz inflections that filter through the album while Chinese Café is another string heavy weepie epic that contains perhaps the best vocal performance by Joni Mitchell on the entire album. Her range feels more natural and impressive here than it does on some of the other songs. Cherokee Louise is from 1991's Night Ride Home and not a song I'm hugely familiar with so I can't compare it to the original but the maudlin lyrics of escape and abuse make it a powerful song that you strive to decipher even if the chorus and vocal never quite moves you in the way that you hop it might. The Dawntreader was a new song and it sounds nice enough here with Joni Mitchell's voice soaring during the chorus. The musical arrangement is pretty here. The Last Time I Saw Richard is a reworking of the famous song from Blue but the original is so etched on the conciseness that to tinker with it again can't help but feel somewhat redundant. Borderline is a pretty song about the general borderlines and boundaries of life and it even has jazz inflections in the original so maybe doesn't sound so different here in orchestral form as some of the other songs. If anything the jazz intrusions feel more negated. A decent enough song in either incarnation. The Circle Game is reconfigured into a sprawling six minute epic to end Travelogue and the strings are certainly lush and moving to chime in with a nice relaxed but dreamy vocal by Joni Mitchell. Travelogue is certainly an interesting experiment and the vocals are often wonderful but this isn't something I'm likely to return to much in the future and, if anything, made me rather feel like just digging out the old albums and listening to the songs in their original form instead.
It's only in the last year that I've really become a Joni Mitchell lover, and that was mainly sparked after hearing the rerecording of 'Both Sides Now' (which featured on Love Actually in 2001). I enjoyed the songs on that album, and felt particularly warmed to Mitchell's deepened, rather husky, voice. I then came across this album, recorded in 2002, and decided to get a copy.
It was the single greatest CD I think I own (and I have about 150). The CD is actually a deluxe 2-CD box set, which features orchestral re-recordings spanning her entire career - 22 songs in total. There are some of Joni's more popular pieces - "Woodstock" and "Sex Kills", but a great many that I'd never come across before - "God Must Be a Boogie Man" and "The Dawntreader", for example. Produced with Larry Klein, the album, for me, captures the real essence of Joni Mitchell, which sung in such a deeply resonant tone gives the pieces a maturity they didn't have the first time around. The track listing is as follows:
1. "Otis and Marlena" - 3:54
2. "Amelia" - 6:48
3. "You Dream Flat Tires" - 3:48
4. "Love" - 5:40
5. "Woodstock" - 5:56
6. "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" - 7:11
7. "Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig's Tune)" - 5:22
8. "The Sire of Sorrow (Job's Sad Song)" - 7:09
9. "For the Roses" - 7:28
10. "Trouble Child" - 5:02
11. "God Must Be a Boogie Man" - 3:56
1. "Be Cool" - 5:09
2. "Just Like This Train" - 5:04
3. "Sex Kills" - 3:57
4. "Refuge of the Roads" - 7:56
5. "Hejira" - 6:47
6. "Chinese Café / Unchained Melody" - 5:41
7. "Cherokee Louise" - 6:00
8. "The Dawntreader" - 5:38
9. "The Last Time I Saw Richard" - 4:58
10. "Borderline" - 6:23
11. "The Circle Game" - 6:50
Some of the highlights from the album:
The original Woodstock featured on Joni's third album "Ladies of the Canyon", and was quite minimalistic in terms of accompaniment. This version is richer, with deep brass and an airy, mysterious, introduction. This piece won a Grammy in 2004 for Orchestral Arrangement, and is a stunning transformation from the original piece.
"God Must Be a Boogie Man"
This track comes from the album "Mingus", which was the final music project that Charles Mingus worked on before his death. This song comes from the following dialogue in Mingus' autobiography:
"Why don't you ever let me lie on the couch, doctor?"
"You always choose the chair."
"I feel you don't want me on the couch 'cause I'm colored and your white patients might be bugged."
"Oh, Charles Mingus! You can lie on it, kick it, jump on it, get on it, get under it, turn it over, break it - and pay for it."'
"Man, you're crazy! I'm gonna save you."
"You're not trained to save. I am."
"I can save you. Do you believe in God?"
"As a boogie man?"
This song is the jazziest of all the songs on Travelogue, with elaborate sax parts and syncopated rhythm, and is particularly suited to Mitchell's deeper and huskier voice, with quite a few low notes. It's a really fun song, and a great end to the first disc.
This is a rework of the 1976 track, from the album of the same name. In the original, the only instruments were Joni's guitar and Jaco Pastorius's fretless bass; but the rerecording is richly orchestral and has become my favourite Joni song of all time. It's as if Joni is travelling the same journey she travelled in the 70s, but somehow the journey is coming full circle. The song is enchanting, but powerful too.
"The Last Time I Saw Richard"
Anyone who owns "Blue" will know this song, and remember it to be quite a melancholy song, almost desparing. The Travelogue version is much more positive, and is one of the songs that really hits you at how deep Joni's voice has become, when she sings the opening line. She is finally putting Richard to rest.
All of the tracks on the album are superb, and to top it all, the disc comes with a beautiful colour booklet in the case with prints of Joni's artwork from the years, which are truly stunning. This is well worth buying, and is a package I will treasure for years to come.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Otis and Marlena
2 Amelia just like
3 You dream flat tires
4 Love (I Corinthians 13)
6 Slouching towards Bethlehem
7 Judgement of the moon and stars (Ludwig's tune)
8 Sire of sorrow (Job's sad song)
9 For the roses
10 Trouble child
11 God must be a boogie man
Disc #2 Tracklisting
1 Be cool
2 This train sex kills
3 Refuge of the roads
5 Chinese cafe/Unchained melody
6 Cherokee Louise
8 Last time I saw Richard
10 Circle game