Big Yellow Taxi - the Joni Mitchell original
Joni Mitchell is inarguably Canada’s most adorkable folk/pop/rock/jazz singer-songwriter. Change. My. Mind. Her environmental folk anthem, said to be written overlooking hotel carpark on a Hawaiian island, has been recycled many, many times. And like most recycled products, the derivatives are never as good as the original. The Big Yellow Taxi has been around the block over 500 times and each lap is an argument in favor of taking the bus.
Mitchell’s original release was to little fanfare. It ws quickly covered by The Neighborhood and then again every five weeks on average ever since. Her 1974 live recording proved more successful and brought a brighter, twangier, upbeatier (?!) slant to the original. Yes, even Joni Mitchell has covered Big Yellow Taxi.
All of Mitchell’s versions are delightfully playful. She tunes her guitar in non-standard ways and strums it idiosyncratically. She has a style identifiably all her own and it is criminally underrated in the annals of axe-wielders. Her high-pitched voice peals clear as a bell and quickly drops to a husky impersonation of an authoritarian headmaster. The contrast tickles the funny bone and endears you to her goofy nature. Mitchell clearly has a lot of fun with this track despite it being a protest against environmental vandalism.
If you aren’t a fan yet, I encourage you to take a deep dive into her catalogue. Mitchell is a legend.
Counting Crows cover Big Yellow Taxi
Counting Crows formed some twenty years after Mitchell released Taxi. It’s old enough to be their mothers. They unleashed their rendition in 2002 and it is so banal that I hear it every other week while shopping in Woolworths. Yes, it’s actually muzak.
That might sound a bit harsh but I don’t think it’s undeserved. I don’t want to be painted as a Crows basher, so let me slather some praise around. They have quite a few catchy tunes, kicking off with the iconic Mr. Jones as well as the shrektastic Accidentally in Love. I don’t think I’ve reached for the dial when either of these hit the airwaves. If lead windpipe Adam Duritz responded to your band’s want ad in 1990, you’d close auditions after hearing him clear his throat. That voice, which matured nicely into the noughties, is a relic of the era. He had the cud-chewing presence similar to contemporaries Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam) and Scott Stapp (Creed) but refrained from curling the bolus around his tongue quite as much. His vocal delivery was much clearer and accessible as a result.
Crows’ version received a slight makeover with the cynical addition of backing vocals from the talented ivory fondler Vanessa Carlton. This new and *cough* improved *cough* version was packaged up for the movie Two Weeks (sic) Notice. The first time I heard this track I had the aural tickle of familiarity from the hook: my ears watered, or somesuch equivalent. But after a few bars, a tide of disappointment swallowed me, followed by the righteous anger experienced by most entitled music nerds at some point in their sad little lives. Somewhere around the three-minute mark, I envied the deaf.
Comparing Counting Crows and Joni Mitchell
Mitchell brings her playful joy to this track. It has an undeniable quality that compels hundreds of musicians to try their hand at capturing or re-imagining the magic. Each (failed) attempt is a testimony to its greatness.
Crows are collectively known as a murder. Which is fitting for what this group of musicians have perpetrated. They have paved paradise. They put up a parking lot of banal commercialism and killed a beautiful thing. It saddens me that an entire generation of people hold Crows’ version of this song as canonical.
Sadly, supermarket demographers think people who shop at my location at my shopping time have an awful taste in music. If I were to throw eggs at the supermarket tannoy, I’d be the bad guy. There is no justice here. Not for my ears, and not for Joni Mitchell. When this song hits my radio, I punch the buttons like an enraged ape, hoping to land on any other frequency … even the Christian country station.
I rate this monstrosity two regurgitated furballs out of nine. I’m also switching to Aldi.
Bonus bird, for Vanessa Carlton enthusiasts:
Please enjoy these rejected cover images.