Monday, 3 September 2012

A Quick Peek Under the Covers: Feather Canyons Everywhere

A Quick Peek Under the Covers

Episode 1

Feather Canyons Everywhere


I would like to begin a semi-regular feature on this blog, during which I will review a piece of music and one or more alternate arrangements, settings, or cover versions, as long as they are superior in some respect to the original (or at least offer something interesting the original does not).

If you have any songs you would like me to review, please post them in the comments!


Both Sides, Now

"Both Sides, Now" is a song by Alberta-born singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell. According to her, she was inspired to write the song while flying and reading Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow. (I know of neither the book nor the author.)

Mitchell wrote the song in 1967. It was first recorded commercially by singer/songwriter Judy Collins in 1968, while Mitchell herself recorded it for her 1969 album Clouds. (1)

As the Wikipedia page about the song shows, the song has been covered many, many times. Indeed, I was surprised at the number of covers in the 1960s. However, the cover version I would like to focus on is Joni Mitchell's own re-arrangement of the song, released on her 2000 album Both Sides Now, with an orchestra accompaniment (orchestration by Vince Mendoza).


The song is broken down into three identically-structured verses. Each verse has a symmetric A/A'/B form, where the B section is a refrain. Beyond that, the structure of the piece is, I think, best revealed in the examination of the lyrics.


From the Joni Mitchell songs I have heard over the years, I have the impression that she is a skilled wordsmith, and "Both Sides, Now" does not disappoint.

In each verse's “A” section, Joni brings up positive qualities of clouds, love, and life, respectively, and explains how she's “looked at” each one, in turn, “that way”. Then, a negation: in the “A'” section, she discusses negative qualities. Finally, in the refrain, she brings it together: she has looked at “both sides, now” of each verse's topic.

So the lyrical structure of each verse takes the form of a classic dialectic: hypothesis, antithesis, and synthesis. (2)

As for the lyrics themselves, complete lyrics are linked above. But I should like to bring up some highlights:
Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I've looked at clouds that way


I've looked at clouds from both sides, now
From up and down, and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I've looked at love that way


In the original version, Joni Mitchell is singing on her own with a guitar (presumably, played by herself). The chord structure is fairly simple, with a I-IV-I or I-V-I structure (4), embellished with other chords, suspensions, and the like. Joni Mitchell is also, it appears, noted for her imaginative guitar settings of her works, and this piece has plenty of little touches that keeps the accompaniment, despite the repetitive nature of the verses, from becoming stale or tedious.

Overall, the original version is a solid folk song, with a strong melody, well-crafted lyrics, and delicate arrangement. (5)

The 2000 cover is a contemporary jazz style, with Joni (with her much older, deeper, huskier voice) singing over a string & brass orchestra. The orchestra plays variations of a four-note motif, which in the opening and first verse creates a delightful layered effect in the low strings. The high strings and brass each take over the motif in the subsequent verses, while a drum set and string bass set up some rhythm starting in the first chorus, and a solo, muted trumpet plays a counter-melody in between Joni's singing in the final parts of the piece.

The chord structure of the cover does not sound as embellished as in the original. On the other hand, there is the added colour of the orchestra and the minimalist layering of the principal motif.

What Makes the Cover Work

I think that Joni Mitchell's 2000 cover is superior to her original 1967 version, for three reasons:
  1. The cover is not simply a re-recording of the original (the way so many covers are) by someone else - that is, a re-hashing of the same music, just in someone else's characteristic style – it is a re-imagining of it from the ground up.
  2. The more languid, melancholy accompaniment of the orchestra is more thematic, given the lyrics, than the peppy guitar.
  3. Perhaps most importantly, Joni Mitchell's greater age and deeper, older-sounding voice give the piece a sense of gravitas that is simply not available in the original. Indeed, in light of the cover, the original version almost sounds presumptuous - who is that 20-something whippersnapper to tell us that she's “looked at life from both sides now”? - whereas 40 years later, Joni Mitchell exclaims the lyrics with the world-weary authority of experience.

So sit back on a patio, crack open a bottle of red and your favourite tobacco product, crank up the volume, and realize that you, too, probably really don't know life at all.


(1) Interestingly, both Joni Mitchell & Judy Collins (and, indeed several other folk/rock singers of their generation) were hospitalized with polio in their childhoods.

(2) Perhaps Mitchell had read up on her Socrates or Hegel some time before writing?

How, indeed?

(4) Music theory jargon alert!

(5) Curiously, on Joni Mitchell's official website, there are four different guitar tabulatures of "Both Sides, Now".

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