Under The Covers

Something's lost, but something's gained.

At New York's Madison Square Garden in November of 1998, Joni Mitchell gave an extraordinary 15-song concert that included the jazz standard "Comes Love." Opening for Bob Dylan, she'd embarked on her first full U.S. tour in decades, and time didn't permit her to showcase more than a handful of songs for an audience dying to hear her most popular tunes. It was, in fact, interesting that she chose to include any cover material at all, but "Comes Love" — previously recorded by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney and (perhaps most famously) Billie Holiday — came across every bit as wry and witty as the best of Mitchell's own compositions. Performed with a tight, rock-fusion combo, the song was an electrifying triumph — its subtle, deliciously ambient accompaniment only enhancing Mitchell's dark, reedy timbre and brisk phrasing.

Had all 12 tracks of Both Sides Now, Mitchell's new album of mostly covers of vintage torch songs, been performed with the same band she used on that tour, it probably would have been a far more enjoyable listening experience. As it is, overwhelmed by the 70-piece London Symphony Orchestra, her vocals here sound lost and colorless. Mitchell's intent is clear, part of this ever-restless artist's ongoing experiments with form and context. Her inclusion of rearranged versions of her own "Both Sides Now" (RealAudio excerpt) and "A Case of You" helps cast this album as a sort of "bridge" project — a way of explaining her fascination with unorthodox, blues-inflected tunings and wide jazz harmonies. By subtracting the pop-folk bounce and simple harmonies from these Mitchell touchstones, she places them in a different emotional and cultural universe.

Citing Duke Ellington's tone poems and Charlie Parker's improvised solos as bigger influences on her contemporary style than the Irish and English ballads she mastered while first learning her craft, Mitchell told the Austin Chronicle's Jody Denburg, "I don't suffer in a pure minor. I just don't. I'm not happy in a pure major [either]; there's always some ... ever since the bomb dropped, ... there's always been a second note running through everybody's lives, whether they're sensitive to it or not." This album, then, seems to be Joni's attempt to better familiarize us with that "second note," and how it presaged the lean, moody melodies of recent works such as "Lakota" and "The Magdalene Laundries." Thus, her nuanced readings of Tin Pan Alley classics such as "Stormy Weather," "Sometimes I'm Happy" and "You're My Thrill" are firmly stamped with both '50s moral ambivalence and her own particularly mordant post-modern sensibility.

Anachronistic? You bet. Disconcerting? Absolutely. But upon further reflection, one can think of no better way for an ambitious singer/songwriter to gamely try to transcend some of the most time-honored cliches of 20th-century pop craft.