More than one side to Joni Mitchell

Review: With her new strings-rich album, this folkie stakes her claim as a jazzy singer.

February 08, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Judging from the title, Joni Mitchell's new album looks like something of a nostalgia trip. "Both Sides Now," after all, was the song that first brought fame to the Canadian folkie, thanks to a 1968 remake by Judy Collins.

But this new "Both Sides Now" (Reprise 47620, arriving in stores today) is a throwback of a different sort. Instead of returning to her folk roots, the album takes us to an even earlier era, to the jazzy, string-drenched sound of Billie Holiday's "Lady In Satin" or Frank Sinatra's mid-'50s concept albums.

To say the album is out of the ordinary for Mitchell would be understating it considerably. Apart from the title tune and "A Case of You," most of the songs on "Both Sides Now" are pre-rock standards, with selections ranging from familiar favorites like "Stormy Weather" to such lesser-known gems as "Answer Me, My Love." Compared to the stark modernism of her last album, 1998's "Taming the Tiger," this new release seems almost the work of a different artist entirely.

Perhaps that's why, in its initial release, "Both Sides Now" will be available only as a limited, numbered edition boxed set, which will include three lithographs by Mitchell in the packaging. (A less elaborate version of the album will be released March 21.)

Mitchell is hardly the first rock star to try her hand at the sound of the pre-rock era, but "Both Sides Now" is not the sort of nostalgic valentine Linda Ronstadt intended in her early-'80s collaborations with arranger Nelson Riddle.

Where Ronstadt sought the snazzy sophistication of Sinatra singing standards, Mitchell seems to be taking a more jazz-oriented tack. Her renditions focus on the emotional underpinnings of these songs, manipulating the melody to better illuminate the relationship of words and music.

Her version of "You're My Thrill," for instance, is beautiful yet ineffably sad, the work of someone hopelessly in thrall to the flame of desire.

When she first begins to sing, there's a lightness to her tone and an economy to her phrasing that, for an instant, recalls the bluesy sweetness of Billie Holiday. It's not an imitation, exactly, but there's a definite sense of musical and emotional common ground in Mitchell's performance.

Making the sound of this album all the more remarkable is that Mitchell's voice has little of the brightness or power it once possessed.

On a technical level, she's getting by almost entirely on the strength of her phrasing and vibrato, making her point more through understatement than musical muscle.

At times, you're almost afraid that she'll disappear beneath a sudden wave of strings and brass, but she holds her place in front of the orchestra as easily as Mark Isham's muted trumpet does in "Comes Love."

In fact, Mitchell seems to be taking many of her cues from instrumental music. Not only does her singing often seem to emulate the color and phrasing of a jazz saxophonist, but the arrangements (by Vince Mendoza, with Gordon Jenkins helping out on "Stormy Weather") seem to owe more to the sound Gil Evans got for his collaborations with Miles Davis ("Porgy and Bess," "Sketches of Spain") than anything Nelson Riddle or Billy May did for Sinatra.

Even when she indulges in an occasional bit of orchestral lushness -- her treatment of "You've Changed" is as string-drenched as any Mantovani album -- Mitchell avoids the obvious pop cliches by having Wayne Shorter's soprano saxophone add a touch of jazzy vinegar to the honeyed arrangement.

Still, as interesting as it is to hear Mitchell establish her jazz singer credentials on "Sometimes I'm Happy" and "Stormy Weather," the album's most fascinating moments come when she rethinks her own material.

When she first recorded "A Case of You" for her 1971 album "Blue," the love-besotted ballad was celebrated chiefly for the way it seemed to fold poetry into music.

As remade here, the song still takes its cues from the words, but in a different way, leaning more toward the dramatic discursiveness of a Richard Rodgers stage piece (imagine the "Soliloquy" from "Carousel," but with a bebop twist).

It's an astonishing performance, showing strengths Mitchell's previous albums have only hinted at. Maybe it is time to look at Mitchell from both sides, as both a pop songwriter and a jazz singer.

Joni Mitchell

"Both Sides Now"

Reprise 47620

Sun score***1/2

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