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Mitchell's dark 'River' flows with holiday tradition Print-ready version

by Sandra Barrera
Los Angeles Daily News
December 2, 2006

What are the ingredients of a Christmas standard?

A beautiful melody, heart-warming images of home and hearth, and - perhaps most important of all - longing.

Think "White Christmas," "Blue Christmas," "I'll Be Home for Christmas."

When compared with those holiday staples with their glimmer of hope, Joni Mitchell's "River" isn't the happiest of Christmas songs.

And yet it has all of those elements, just more so, making it perhaps the most exquisite expression of seasonal affective disorder on the planet.

Mitchell wrote "River" in the early '70s after her breakup with Graham Nash.

She was also inspired by Los Angeles, where unseasonably warm winters made her yearn for snowy Canada and, as she sings in the song, for "a river I could skate away on."

Those lyrics bled from the 1971 confessional album "Blue" and have been interpreted by singers of different generations as Mitchell's song has become widely covered.

Among the latest is a duet between Madeleine Peyroux and k.d. lang, as well as versions by Sarah McLachlan and James Taylor.

When Peyroux and lang step up on the former jazz singer's "Half the Perfect World" disc, they squeeze the last drops of optimism out of "River," rendering it an expression of utter defeat. They're so deep in a funk that it doesn't look like they'll come out of it anytime soon.

With Mitchell's version, you always knew she would.

McLachlan hews closely to that spirit and cadence of the original on her album, "Wintersong," while Taylor transfers the sentiment to the guitar and his smooth, sweet voice as part of "James Taylor at Christmas."

Each of them captures an aspect of "River," but let's face it - the original transcends them all.

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Added to Library on December 4, 2006. ( 1,070)

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