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Standard Surprises   Print

by Jim Farber
New York Now
February 6, 2000

GEORGE MICHAEL, "SONGS FROM THE LAST CENTURY" (VIRGIN)
JONI MITCHELL, "BOTH SIDES NOW" (REPRISE)

Sooner or later, every singer wants to tackle the classics. The millennium must’ve seemed as good a time as any for two major names — Joni Mitchell and George Michael — whose new works take on the standards of the last century. Their decisions, no doubt, reflect a broader desire by the baby-boom generation to make peace with the music of their parents’ era. At the same time, it reflects the two stars’ desires to try material that has withstood the test of time.

Certainly, Michael has gone to enormous lengths to be taken seriously in the last few years. But as the album goes into circulation, the big question is this: Is he up to the task of bringing a fresh approach to these standards or is this nothing more than a self-conscious reach on his part?

Mitchell, on the other hand, would seem a natural for this type of music. She’s got the sensibility and character to make these elegant and precise songs her own.

Well, surprise!

The exact opposite turns out to be true. Michael puts in a sweet and moving performance, while Mitchell (my idol!) brings little of her brilliance to bear.

The quality of Michael’s voice provides the first delightful surprise on his LP. Never has the singer sounded so angelic. His version of "I Remember You" features just voice and harp, with little of the echo Michael normally lays on thick.

The crystalline quality in his singing matches the harp’s heavenly sound. He’s even better on Ewan MacColl’s classic "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," where he holds the notes with enough care and beauty to make Roberta Flack’s version seem downright homely.

Michael assumed a broad definition of standards for this project, expanding well beyond the ‘30s and ‘40s. In between songs like 1932’s "Brother Can You Spare A Dime" and ‘37’s "Where Or When," Michael folds in "Roxanne," The Police’s 1979 ode to a prostitute, and U2’s 1995 piece "Miss Sarajevo." Countering Sting’s reggae-pop arrangement, Michael turns "Roxanne" into a swinging lounge ballad, while he finds more melody in the U2 tune than Bono had managed.

On most tracks, Michael and producer Phil Ramone keep the instrumentation light, centering on piano and upright bass, laying a fine flim of strings on top.

In another refreshing move, Michael uses the songs’ lyrics to cleverly underscore his recent coming out. In "My Baby Just Cares For Me," the singer keeps his pronouns honest, referring to his lover as "he." Michael wrings obvious double meaning from "Secret Love." But there’s nothing winking or smarmy about the result. Michael simply sounds free. He sounds remarkably young, too.

The most striking aspect of Michael’s interpretations, in fact, is the naive quality in his voice, communicating an almost antique innocence. Some of this derives from less than ideal circumstances: namely, Michael’s shallowness. He isn’t a guy who exudes significant experience or great intelligence.

But that just makes him sound more endearingly boyish and vulnerable. He makes every number sound like a song of first love. In the world of standards, it recalls the underrated ‘50s recordings of Doris Day. To get that quality in this cynical age makes this album nothing short of miraculous.

Joni Mitchell can’t help but communicate much more sophistication on her album. But her take on standards like "Stormy Weather" and "Don’t Talk to Strangers" (timed to come out for Valentine’s Day) winds up depressingly turgid.

As even her most ardent fans must acknowledge, Joni has lost significant elements of her voice over the years. But usually she makes up for it with phrasing and arrangements that fill in nuance and color.

Here, Mitchell’s phrasing is puzzlingly repetitive, her melodic choices narrow, emphasizing the most brittle and hoarse aspects of her instrument. She minimizes the tunes with the orchestral arrangements, which tend to be dreary, dark and slow.

There’s little vigor anywhere, in fact, and no compelling mood. Only her version of "Comes Love" (made famous by Billie Holiday) nails the sad wit of the lyric.

Longtime followers will be intrigued by the fact that Mitchell included two of her own classics, "A Case Of You" and "Both Sides Now." But to what end? The latter is motionless. The former, once one of the most movingly tense pieces in recorded history, here meanders. Like most everything else on the record, it ends up heartbreaking for all the wrong reasons.

 

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