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Something's Lost and Something's Gained   Print

by Stephen Holden
New York Times
February 13, 2000

FEW contemporary voices have aged more shockingly than Joni Mitchell's. The craggy alto on "Both Sides Now," her intermittently magnificent new album of standards (including two of her best-loved original songs), is so changed from the sweetly yodeling folk soprano of her earliest albums that it hardly seems possible the two sounds could have come from the same body.

In refusing to fight or try to camouflage the ravages of time, Ms. Mitchell belongs to an interpretive school that includes Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, whose vocal deterioration brought them greater emotional depth and realism. Studying a chronology of their records is like following a road map of their lives that takes you deep into the mountains over increasingly rugged terrain. The bumpier the road gets, the longer the view. In the opposite school are supremely polished technicians like Mel Tormé and Sarah Vaughan, whose voices remained distinctively beautiful (even as they darkened with age) until the ends of their lives.

Listening to Ms. Mitchell, who is 56 and has smoked heavily for decades, you can hear the toll of all those cigarettes in her shortened breath, husky timbre and inability to make fluent vocal leaps. At the same time, that very huskiness lends her torch singing the battered authenticity we expect of middle-aged jazz singers with their years of after-hours living and accompanying vices.

Ms. Mitchell has been struggling for that authenticity since the mid-1970's, but it wasn't until her guest appearances on Herbie Hancock's 1998 album, "Gershwin's World," singing "The Man I Love" and "Summertime," that she finally sounded like a weather-beaten jazz chanteuse. To approach the rarefied place inhabited by Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone, Ms. Mitchell virtually had to lose her voice.

With "Both Sides Now" (Warner Brothers 2-47620), Ms. Mitchell follows her 70's folk-pop peers, Linda Ronstadt and Carly Simon, into the realm of formally orchestrated pop arranged in the style of late-1950's Holiday and Sinatra albums. And in making the gesture, Ms. Mitchell, the most influential female folk-rocker of all time, has recertified the continuity of pre-rock and rock traditions.

That continuity has more to do with attitude than with musical style. For as much as rock-era singers rebelled against pre-rock forms, many (especially those who came out of folk music) retained an enduring faith in the earlier generation's romantic mythology. With true love the unquestioned ideal, pop sentiment swung between the poles of happily-ever-after and heartbreak, ecstasy and tragedy. Ms. Mitchell's original folk-rock songs upheld that mythology while analyzing it with an unprecedented personal candor and deep skepticism. It remained for another generation of punk rockers and hip-hoppers to topple that mythology and subvert romantic dreaminess with rawer, more realistic views of sex as brutally funny, harshly combative game-playing.

"Both Sides Now," which Warner Brothers has just released in a special Valentine's Day package ($49.98; it will come out as a regular CD on March 21), was recorded in England with a 70-piece orchestra arranged and conducted by Vince Mendoza. The orchestrations on 7 of its 12 cuts have the richness of full-scale Hollywood film scores, embellished with jazz solos that feature Wayne Shorter (on saxophones) and Mark Isham (trumpet) along with a discreet dusting of jazz rhythm.

The album's most obvious precedent is Holiday's classic "Lady in Satin," recorded in 1958, not long before the singer's death, with Ray Ellis conducting an orchestra augmented by top-flight jazz soloists. "Lady in Satin" is as starkly tragic a pop album as has ever been made. On it, Holiday's cracked, parched old-woman's timbre (she was only 42 but sounds 70-something) adds an extra layer of pathos to self-lacerating ballads like "I'm a Fool to Want You," "You Don't Know What Love Is" and "You've Changed." Yet for all the physical damage on display, Holiday's stealthy jazz phrasing remained intact along with her ominous aura of masochistic enjoyment.

"Both Sides Now," unlike "Lady in Satin," has its lighter moments. But on the whole it aspires to the same level of emotional gravity, especially in Ms. Mitchell's devastating versions of "You've Changed" and "You're My Thrill" (which Holiday recorded in 1949 with a similar arrangement). Ms. Mitchell's interpretations of both songs are as deep and somber as Lady Day's. Her Holiday-like phrasing, smoke-charred timbre and anguished intensity take you to the core of songs describing states of emotional torture: facing the imminent departure of a lover who has lost interest ("You've Changed"), and helpless erotic obsession ("You're My Thrill"). Equally powerful is a version of "At Last," sung as a pained cry of relief, in which eerie piano triplets almost beyond earshot echo Etta James's version of the song while the blossoming orchestrations recall Nat (King) Cole's.

These darker moments are much more convincing than the album's sunnier ones, in which Ms. Mitchell's attempts to swing breezily fall short. Her performance on a brass-heavy Sinatra-influenced version of "I Wish I Were in Love Again," in particular, lacks the visceral punch that might make this playful celebration of a rough-and-tumble relationship seem like fun.

The album's boldest and most problematic moments are its symphonically weighted versions of two Mitchell originals, "A Case of You" (originally a fragile folk-pop lament sung against a quivering dulcimer) and her most famous song, "Both Sides Now." Here, both are intoned as dramatic monologues amid churning, hovering strings. But since neither song goes anywhere harmonically, the music just sits heavily as the singer muses out loud.

But if "A Case You" sinks under that orchestral weight, "Both Sides Now" somehow stays afloat. With her brooding oracular delivery, Ms. Mitchell forcibly twists this singsongy tune with its frilly images ("rows and flows of angel hair") into a humbling life lesson on the elusiveness of personal wisdom ("It's life's illusions I recall/ I really don't know life at all"). Like a determined swimmer fighting a flood tide, Ms. Mitchell prevails and carries her most famous song safely to higher ground.

 

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