Some musicians are just doomed. No, they're not in any danger of dying prematurely or anything of a morbid nature. Rather, they're simply doomed to stasis. That is, if these sorts of musicians try to release a record that's somewhat dissimilar to their previous ones, they are slammed beyond belief by the media. Sometimes it doesn't even matter whether the record actually sucks or not. For example, as soon as Miles Davis began bringing in amplifiers and rock guitarists into the recording studio, the critics cried foul. Of course, the critics were laughably misguided, as Davis proceeded to release Pangaea and Bitches Brew and other fabulous fusion albums. Thus, he obtained freedom to pretty much do whatever the hell he wanted from that point on. On the other hand, when a singer in an emo band says to the other fellows in the band, "Uh, do you think we should try toning it down on this track?", it's clear that they're going to be fucked commercially (a broad generalization, perhaps, but a serviceable one).
So exactly who has the free license to move across genres? It's clear that Joni Mitchell is one of these roamers, as she has been able to move from folk to jazz and back for several years now, sometimes blurring the line completely with her bizarre guitar tunings. But on her latest album, Both Sides Now, Mitchell dashes across the border and lands squarely in jazz, singing a group of standard ballads with Holliday-like phrasing and elegance. Though some have complained about Mitchell's "jazz voice" as compared to her other voices (and others, like yours truly, have never heard the difference), they can't possibly have much to complain about here. Joni may not be able to match the vocal range or volume of a Carey or a Dion, but the emotion, quirkiness, and newfound depth of her voice makes all the difference.
Even if Mitchell couldn't sing, this album would still be fabulous because of the extraordinary musicians in attendance. Wayne Shorter appears on not two, not three, but four cuts, and the incomparable Herbie Hancock plays on a couple as well. Having a full orchestra on hand never hurt anyone. The sound is full, rich, and lush. This disc is more than just a substitute for that Ella Fitzgerald record that's too scuffed up to listen to anymore.
All the songs here are gorgeous, but two are especially notable: "A Case of You" and "Both Sides Now." It's not that Joni does anything better on these two tracks. The musicians don't make any additional magic. It's just that these two songs are Joni Mitchell covering herself. That is, they're two songs that Mitchell has revamped and reinterpreted in a jazz orchestral format. Now that's something to be proud of; most people just write a song and then play it the same way for the rest of their lives. Even though this is an album of covers, Mitchell has injected much creativity and invention into a somewhat rigid structure, a commendable feat.
It's just too bad that Mitchell has chosen this particular mode of expression for her ruminations on love developed and destroyed. As great and expressive as the album is, it would have been more compelling to see Mitchell try a completely different sound. This doesn't mean Joni Mitchell has to record an ambient drum and bass album to please me; that sort of thing would be a grave error. But for an accomplished artist like Mitchell, it would not hurt to try working with different musicians and within different genres. For example, incorporating some samba beats (maybe with Caetono Veloso or someone of that stature) might bring a new slant to Mitchell's tried and true ballads.