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Both Sides Now is a 2000 album by the Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. This is a concept album with orchestral versions of famous jazz standards and a few reworkings of old Joni Mitchell songs in the same vein. It doesn't sound terribly exciting or enticing but if you like Joni Mitchell it's worth a listen and the jazz element is never too overbearing and often negated by the strings and orchestra. The general tone of the album is dreamy and reflective and the musical arrangements - while sometimes epic - never tread on the singer's toes too much and allow her voice to remain centre stage. If I had one criticism though it might be that many of the arrangements never leap out at you or ever feel as if they trying to do anything different. This is an album that sounds superb in small snatches but does run the risk of becoming rather samey when experienced in undiluted fashion. Joni Mitchell's voice has gradually got much lower and smokier over the decades with age and so I suppose it's understandable that she gravitated more and more in this direction and felt comfortable there although I will always like the late sixties and early seventies albums the most when she was much more flower power falsetto and bunny rabbits on the Valley Forge as Lord Summerisle checked on his latest crop of apples in the afternoon sun. A glorious and affecting album at its very best but ultimately not one that ever quite feels essential. I'd imagine that it made for some great live performances though and feels like something that would stand taller with an audience and a live orchestra. It's a possible weakness but the production of the album is good and Joni Mitchell's vocals always feel intimate and heartfelt. You're My Thrill (by Sidney Clare and Jay Gorney) begins the album and is a lush languid jazz ballad that sounds like the theme to an early sixties Bond film with Sean Connery. Very From Russia with Love. The orchestration and strings are very dreamy and the vocal by Joni Mitchell is very assured and laid back. A nice way to begin Both Sides Now.
At Last (by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren) is much in the vein of the first song. There is a very crooning Matt Monroe sixties aura to the vocal and strings and Joni Mitchell gives an impressive rendition of the song with an uncanny ability to hold a note for what seems like just the right amount of time. If you like the lackadaisical widescreen jazz orchestra sound then you should like most of this record. Comes Love (by Lew Brown, Sam Stept and Charles Tobias) is another velvety jazz infused opus that is pleasant enough. Joni Mitchell's vocal is a little more kooky and mannered here, slightly playful, and it adds an extra layer of interest for the listener lest we should be feeling an air of deja vu already. Not really one of my favourites here but it's very atmospheric and the vocals are inventive and nicely paced. You've Changed (by Bill Carey and Carl Fischer) is another crooning kitchen sink jazz epic that evokes neon signs glittering in alleyway puddles and late nights in the city with car headlamps sweeping the walls like searchlights. Joni Mitchell's voice has obviously changed over the years and become deeper and richer and that extra timbre and world weariness is used to very good effect here. This style of album obviously suits the older Joni Mitchell although I'm already starting to suspect that Both Sides Now is not quite my cup of tea. There is much to admire but somehow the simplicity and more ethereal sound of the early folk songs moved me much more. Answer Me, My Love (by Fred Rauch, Carl Sigman and Gerhard Winkler) is a nice rendition of another staple - Joni Mitchell again goes deeper than usual and the vocal is almost spoken rather than sung. She sounds vaguely Elvis here at times!
A Case of You is more of the same although this is actually a Joni Mitchell song (from Blue if memory serves) and not a cover. It's given the moonlit unearthly hour with low key vocals jazz makeover in keeping with the rest of the album and the effect is certainly interesting. I suppose one could argue that many early Joni Mitchell songs are spiritually jazz songs with their pace and sense of emotion and atmosphere (even if they weren't performed as such) but even so I much prefer them as folk songs. Another slow and restrained vocal that sounds very after hours and late night and a pretty song. This maybe though never quite sparked into life and charmed me in the fashion that I wanted it to. On "Don't Go to Strangers" (by Redd Evans, Arthur Kent and David Mann) Joni Mitchell goes even more velvety and continues the Billie Holiday feel to the album. The orchestration is very rich here, maybe too rich in the end, like a pudding you can't eat. The music is very sixties fluff film with Doris Day and George Peppard (or something) and almost borders on cliche in the end with this song but one's attention is also focused primarily on the vocal. Sometimes I'm Happy (by Irving Caesar, Clifford Grey and Vincent Youmans) is a more upbeat jazz staple here and the album (which was maybe becoming a bit samey and one note by this point) could probably do with the more upbeat and snappy sound that this song brings to the table purely to mix things up a bit. There is more piano and Joni Mitchell softens her vocal a little (although we are still a million miles away from the acoustic falsetto flower power Joni Mitchell of the early days).
Don't Worry 'Bout Me (by Rube Bloom and Ted Koehler) is a slower song again more in vein with much of the album than the previous song. Joni Mitchell is crooning her heart out and the music is so laid back bittersweet and jazzy that we could be forgiven for conjuring images of Willy Loman having a nervous breakdown. Stormy Weather (by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler) is a song that everyone probably knows. Do we really need another version? Possibly not but this is actually very affecting and wonderfully done by Joni Mitchell. I Wish I Were in Love Again (by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers) feels much lighter than most of the other songs with a more whimsical sound to the music. I can't say that it's my favourite thing here but I liked the vocal. Joni Mitchell has to be more dexterous to keep up with the playful and brisker music cues and it's all impressive even if the actual end result wasn't really my cup of tea. Finally, a version of Both Sides Now, Joni Mitchell's own song from the early album Clouds. "I've looked at clouds from both sides now, From up and down, and still somehow, It's cloud illusions I recall, I really don't know clouds at all." I prefer the honey drenched folksy original version with acoustic guitar but but this is certainly grand sweeping stuff and a nice song in any incarnation. Both Sides Now is an impressive album but not one that ever really captured my attention or moved me in the way that Clouds, Blue and Hejira did. It's definitely worth a listen if you are a fan but I think one probably has to be more interested in orchestral covers of classic jazz songs than I am to really get the most out of this album.
Since someone once mentioned that their least favourite song from the movie soundtrack of Love, Actually was "Both Sides Now" sung by Joni Mitchell, I thought I'd best write a review of one of her albums. See, its hard for me to hear anyone dismissing such a wonderful artist so quickly. And what better and more appropriate album to review, then the one where this song is the name of the album?
I must mention at the outset that this album isn't the one where the title song originally comes from. I believe that this honour goes to her 1969 album, Clouds. But one thing that makes this album different from most, if not all Joni's albums, is that there are only two tracks here that were written by Joni herself. Those being Both Sides Now and Case of You. But that's not the only thing creative here. What we have here is not just a compilation of a bunch of old songs that Joni wanted to record - although one could believe that at first listen. No, what we have here is a very careful selection of songs, placed in a very particular order on this album so as to actually tell a whole story. And, in this case, it's a love story.
I think that this is best described by Larry Klein on the album notes when he says "The album would be a programmatic suite documenting a relationship from initial flirtation through optimistic consummation, metamorphosing into disillusionment, ironic despair and finally resolving in the philosophical overview of acceptance and the probability of the cycle repeating itself". This is an interesting concept, and as you will see, one that has been fully realized, and successfully so.
A quick look at the track list will already give you an idea of what this album contains:
1. You're My Thrill - 1933 - words: Sidney Clare, music: Jay Gorney
2. At Last - 1942 - Mack Gordon/Harry Warren
3. Comes Love - 1939 - Lew Brown/Sammy Stept/Charles Tobias
4. You've Changed - 1968 - Bill Carey/Carl Fischer
5. Answer Me, My Love - 1953 - Gerhard Winkler/Fred Rauch; English Lyric: Carl Sigman
6. A Case of You - 1972 - Joni Mitchell
7. Don't Go To Strangers - 1954 - Redd Evans/Arthur Kent/David Mann
8. Sometimes I'm Happy - 1925 - Irving Caesar/Clifford Grey/Vincent Youmans
9. Don't Worry 'Bout Me - 1939 - Rube Bloom/Ken Koehler
10. Stormy Weather - 1933 - Ted Koehler/Harold Arlen
11. I Wish I Were in Love Again - 1937 - Lorenz Hart/Richard Rogers
12. Both Sides Now - 1967 - Joni Mitchell
Just looking at the titles you can already see how this album has been built in a very special order. The first three are about the budding of a romance, then the songs start to speak of the problems and difficulties, ending with songs which express both sadness at the end of the relationship as well as hope for the future. This does mean, however, that this isn't a CD to be listened to when your player is in 'shuffle' mode. No, you really should listen to this starting from track one and ending with track 12 - there's no doubt that this is the way Joni and her producers meant it to be listened to.
Of course, this doesn't mean that the songs can't stand on their own, separate from this format. To the contrary, I'm sure that many of you will recognize at least two or three of the songs here. I'm speaking of course of the three classic love songs - At Last (My Love Has Come Along), Stormy Weather and I Wish I Were In Love Again. After these and Joni's two songs, the rest of the tracks are probably less familiar to you, as they were to me - despite my mother having such a large collection of oldies when I was growing up. My mother taught me to listen for a lyric that had cleverness (such as those written by Cole Porter, for example), and music that pulled the listener into the song. All of these songs fit this bill admirably. Mind you, under today's standards, there are a few cliches in some of the lyrics of these older songs - skies of blue, stars up above, clouds - but that's about it. Going over these songs, it was surprising to me exactly how few cliches I could find in the lyrics. Certainly that should point to the quality of these songs. And of course, since these are earlier works, you won't be finding any swear words or X-rate innuendo, but rather hints to the more romantic love that seems to have gone out of fashion in today's music.
But good songs do not always a good album make. What makes or breaks an album is what you hear when you listen. That means vocals and background music. To begin with, Joni Mitchell has a very versatile voice with an extremely large range. She can hit the high notes with as much true ease as she hits the low notes - something that I can only compare to Barbara Streisand. But while Barbara has a very clear, if slightly nasal voice, Joni's has a bit of a heavier, more chesty quality to it, which this collection of songs brings forth with an amazing freshness, that does not lack maturity in the least. In fact, I'd say that this is probably Joni's most mature sounding album to date, and that her voice here has a particularly blues-like quality that gives much more depth to the higher notes than she had in the early days of her career. In a word, I'd have to say that what comes to mind when I listen to her voice on this album, is "rich". I could add "smooth" and also "dusky" to the mix and perhaps you'd get a better picture (think dark, 70% chocolate, perhaps?). But moreover, I feel that she's singing here with all the emotions that her voice can express, which makes listening here a real experience that sounds like it comes straight from the heart.
This isn't to say that the album is gloomy or dark. While there is a sadness to many of the songs, there's also a good mixture of light qualities in this album as well. For instance, there's the hopefulness in her own song "Both Sides Now" as well as the lighthearted musical number "I Wish I Were In Love Again", which is almost tongue-in-cheek, along with pure joy in the opening track of "You're My Thrill". And while this is a true solo album, with no backup singers to enhance or hide Joni's natural talent, there is also no lack of orchestration here. The list of musicians on this album is very impressive (including Herbie Hancock on piano for one song), and yet, these have been mixed in such a way as to keep Joni's voice in the forefront at all times, and without distracting the listener. This doesn't mean that the orchestra is superfluous, since they carefully set the tone and enhance the mood for each song in perfect balance to the vocals. What more could you ask?
I really should mention the album cover and inlay here, since it is a bit on the special side. The booklet has the usual list of songs and lyrics and all the introduction and credits that are required. But what's really nice is that all the artwork is original Joni Mitchell. Yes, both the album cover as well as the booklet are paintings done by Joni herself. Starting with the front cover of the album (which is also the front cover of the booklet - see picture below) where we find a self-portrait of Joni, at a bar with a glass of red wine, a lit cigarette in one hand and a pen, carefully placed on the counter top. Joni looks pretty serious in this picture, but it is without a doubt a show of artistic talent. There are more joyful paintings inside the booklet, including one of a vase of yellow roses that is reminiscent of Van Gogh's vase of sunflowers. I particularly liked the last picture inside the booklet, which is also on the back cover of the album. This is another self-portrait, where Joni is in the same position as she appears on the front cover, but this time we see the back of her head, looking away from the painter. Finally, the CD disk itself has a close-up from the front cover of Joni's mouth and neck and the glass of wine. Very clever, if you ask me, and certainly an added bonus to just look at this artwork.
Bottom line - I must admit that it may very well be my mother's love for these kinds of songs which drew me to this album. Although, certainly my love for Joni Mitchell had no small part in my deciding to buy the CD. What I didn't expect was the complex thought that went into designing the content of this album, and the unique quality of Joni's more mature voice which these songs showcase. I can't say that this is an album for everyone. There are no heavy bass lines or electronic beats to make you want to get up and dance to. But if you're in the mood for a musical line that flows over you like a warm breeze in spring, and a voice that feels like honey, and lyrics that are evocative rather than obvious (and without swear words), then perhaps you'll enjoy this album as much as I do. Highly recommended with a full five stars!
Thanks for reading.
There is an official site for Joni Mitchell which you can find at (amazingly enough) http://www.jonimitchell.com/
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 You're My Thrill
2 At Last
3 Comes Love
4 You've Changed
5 Answer Me My Love
6 Case Of You
7 Don't Go To Strangers
8 Sometimes I'm Happy
9 Don't Worry 'bout Me
10 Stormy Weather
11 I Wish I Were In Love Again
12 Both Sides Now