THOUGH SHE'S ALWAYS BEEN KNOWN as one of the rock era's preeminent singer-songwriters, Joni Mitchell takes a breather from her own writing duties on her upcoming release, Both Sides Now, a 12-song collection composed mainly of standards from the past. The album finds Mitchell interpreting songs made famous by the likes of Billie Holiday, Etta James, Frank Sinatra, Nat "King" Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington, as well as updating two of her own classics, "A Case of You" (originally found on 1971's Blue) and the title track, arguably her best-known song. In an unusual marketing move by Reprise Records, the new album will see a special limited-edition version released on February 8, followed by the regular album several weeks later on March 21.
For details on Both Sides Now, ICE spoke with co-producer/musical director (and Mitchell's ex-husband) Larry Klein. The genesis for the project began when Klein and Don Henley put together a concert in Los Angeles entitled "Stormy Weather," which benefited Henley's Walden Woods Foundation. Klein enlisted 10 female singers, including Bjork, Stevie Nicks, Natalie Cole, Sheryl Crow, Paula Cole, and of course, Mitchell, to perform standards with an orchestra. "I told her that once she sings in front of a large orchestra, she was going to get addicted to it," Klein tells ICE. "It turned out that she really, really enjoyed doing it and, in the aftermath of that, decided she wanted to do a record of standards. As we started throwing the idea around, she decided she wanted to put a couple of her own songs into the equation as well.
"We gradually started picking songs and she came up with the idea of having it follow the arc of a relationship, from initial flirtation to optimistic consummation, metamorphosing into disillusionment and despair. The album ends with the overview of acceptance that it's all been worth it, and will probably happen again." A glance at the track sequence confirms what Klein says: it begins with "You're My Thrill" (a song popularized by Holiday) and ends with Mitchell's own "Both Sides Now." Klein believes this may be a first for pop music.."a programmatic piece which traces that arc," as he puts it.
The album was recorded in London at Sir George Martin's Air Studios Lyndhurst. Klein chose the location, "a beautiful old church that's been transformed into a great studio," and the musicians who make up the orchestra. "We basically got the cream of the crop of orchestral players in London," he says. "It was just stunning: they played so emotionally and strongly to the music. It was really something to hear what a group of 70 people can do when they're really inspired."
Mitchell and Klein also enlisted several well-known jazz musicians for the record: Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Mark Isham, bassist Chuck Berghofer and drummer Peter Erskine.
The track list for Both Sides Now, with the artist who popularized the tune in parentheses, along with Klein's comments:
· "You're My Thrill" (Holiday)
· "At Last" (James) - "Joni was a bit intimidated by doing this, because Etta's version is hallowed ground to her. We approached it in an understated fashion (compared to James' version)."
· "Comes Love" (Holiday)
· "You've Changed" (Holiday) - "This is where things start going south."
· "Answer Me" (Cole) - a Top 10 hit for Nat 1954.
· "A Case of You" - "I insisted on including this. I had a really clear idea on what we could do with this song, and her vocal performance is absolutely incredible. This and Both Sides Now have a power and worldly-wise perspective the (earlier) versions, as great as they are, don't have."
· "Don't Go To Strangers" (Washington)
· "Sometimes I'm Happy" (various) - A song dating from 1925 that was a Top 20 hit twice in the '20s, twice more in the '30s, and then later popularized by Fitzgerald and Holiday. "Our touchstone for this is Billie Holiday's version."
· "Don't Worry 'Bout Me" (Holiday) - Also a Top 20 hit for Sinatra in 1954.
· "Stormy Weather" - "Our version is very much like Sinatra's version. "Frank actually recorded this war-horse three different times, in 1944, and for his 1959 LP No One Cares and his 1984 album Is My Lady, recorded with Quincy Jones."
· "I Wish I Were in Love Again" (Sinatra) - a Rodgers & Hart composition which Frank recorded on his 1957 album A Swingin' Affair!
· "Both Sides Now"
The limited-edition version of Both Sides Now features artwork exclusively designed by Mitchell, and is in stores just in time for Valentine's Day. Klein tells us that Mitchell hopes to do some orchestral shows to promote the album, as well as several dates with Hancock and Shorter. Klein also believes the "Stormy Weather" concert will be made available to the public at a time in the future. A promotional CD of the show had been given to AT&T customers in 1999 as an enticement to use their Internet service (ICE #147). Fans accustomed to Joni's soaring soprano and the spare acoustic settings of her folk-rock
albums are in for a shock. Here her voice has dropped an octave or so, and she sings 10 tunes
from an earlier pop era ( as well as two originals) as torch songs, in a husky, smoke-cured
alto. With phrasing that evokes a latter-day Billie Holiday, Mitchell covers such Lady Day
numbers as "You're My Thrill" and "You've Changed," a desolate love-gone-dry song made sweet
by accompanist Wayne Shorter's tender saxophone. In places however, the melodramatic,
string-heavy orchestrations featured on tracks like "Stormy Weather" make the songwriter,
long known for her sly deconstructions of pre-rock pop styles, sound more like the kind
of ermine-and-pearls lounge crooners her parents might have swooned for. Wile just such
an overripe arrangement makes a new version of her own 1971 impressionistic barroom blues
"A Case of You" (from Blue) sound sentimental, the album highlight is a richly textured
re-invention of the title tune, one of Mitchell's classic compositions. A pop hit for Judy
Collins in 1968, the song is rendered here as a melancholy, middle-aged woman's rumination
on the mysteries of love. Bottom Line: Folk icon tries on a new old style.