BOTH SIDES NOW, Reprise. Grammys for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance, with Larry Klein, producer; Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist, Vince Mendoza.
Deep down, Joni Mitchell has always been a jazz singer. Though her compositions center on life lessons and other writerly observations, what animates them are the intricate melodies -- jackknifing, sharp-cornered lines that demand to-the-syllable specificity. On Both Sides Now, Mitchell applies that precision to tunes that have been famously blubbered over for decades (plus two of her own songs). Where Linda Ronstadt and other pop singers who have covered jazz standards tend to lean on oversize crooning (most recently and abhorrently, George Michael), Mitchell knows that the romance vanishes when the lines are exaggerated. So she concentrates on the melodic essence of torchy warhorses like "You've Changed" and "Stormy Weather," boiling away the frills until all that's left are haunting, painfully stark declarations. Singing atop a velvety orchestra, sounding buoyant one minute and betrayed the next, Mitchell interprets "At Last" with slurry, smeared-paint gestures and gives "Don't Go to Strangers" a weary, Billie Holiday-worthy soul ache. It is Mitchell's emotional generosity, not the fabulous surroundings, that winds up mattering most: After years of spinning yarns heavily dependent on words, she's telling these stories with a repertoire of gingerly placed inflections and anguished sighs, tools she's always had but never flaunted. (RS 836)
Joni Mitchell has long dabbled in the jazz world, forging alliances with the likes of Charles Mingus, Jaco Pastorius, and Wayne Shorter, while incorporating elements of fusion into her more intrepid recordings. Both Sides Now, however, comes at jazz from a different angle than the experimental likes of Mingus and The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Here is Joni the chanteuse, tackling smoky standards such as "At Last," "Sometimes I'm Happy," and "Stormy Weather" in the embrace of lush pop arrangements that owe a debt to Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins, though some stray over the line from stately into staid. The focus here is on Mitchell the vocalist, and she displays a real commitment to the music. She has the chops and the smarts to tackle these staples, but at times she seems intimidated by their illustrious pedigrees. Two of Mitchell's own songs are revived here--"A Case of You" and the title track. The results are mixed: the former takes on a new weight while the latter seems adolescent in such mature company. Ultimately, Both Sides Now is more a valentine to classic pop by a woman who can--and should--be off making more touchstones of her own. --Steven Stolder