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Joni Mitchell: Both Sides Now

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On this somewhat radical departure, pop folkstress Joni Mitchell plants herself in front of the London Symphony Orchestra and gives somber, soulful readings of 12 romantic standards made famous by such legendary vocalists as Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald. But whereas former pop queen Linda Ronstadt hammed it up a bit when she tackled similar classics with Nelson Riddle-almost as if she was leading a big brassy band on the Queen Mary-Mitchell, who’s worked with jazz greats Wayne Shorter (who appears here, along with Herbie Hancock and Mark Isham), Jaco Pastorius and Charles Mingus in the past, retains much of her lonely storyteller’s charm, keeping her denim-clad readings honest and heartfelt while the myriad instruments swoon behind her. These songs obviously mean something more to Mitchell than mere chances to slow dance, and the fusion of the vastly different worlds is enlightening: If Etta James’ “At Last” details the tingling moments right before the lovers’ first kiss, Mitchell’s “At Last” is music for the morning after, a throaty sensuality propelling the song. Mitchell’s husky vocal-and the ominous strings hovering above like fat clouds filled with trouble-eerily morphs “Stormy Weather” from a wet walk in the park to a grief-stricken reading of a poetic suicide note.