Norah Jones Hangs Her Hat
For a sultry torch singer who releases her work on an old, smoky jazz label, Norah Jones has a surprising amount in common with the Strokes. For one, both Jones and the group of New York hipsters released their debut albums mere months apart a couple of years back. Soon after they hit the CD racks, both records began multiplying like jack rabbits across the country, until it was nearly impossible to enter someone’s house who did not possess one or the other, or both. Like the Strokes, Norah Jones’s fans await her sophomore serving with eager anticipation. The only thing more difficult to do than sell as many records as Jones did the first time around is to make a follow-up record that’s better and different. While the Strokes released Room on Fire late in 2003 to critical praise, many listeners complained that the record sounded a little too similar to their first album, Is This It.
Granted, after selling so many records on your first go around, it’s difficult to choose what to do for an encore: Do you crank out a record that’s more of the same, or do you sneak off and make the experimental noise album you’ve always wanted to? Luckily, Norah Jones is a jazz pianist first who happens to carry a torch for Billie Holiday and Ryan Adams. She also records for Blue Note Records, an 80-year-old label specializing in jazz by the likes of Horace Silver and Herbie Hancock. Certainly the executives at the label all benefited greatly from Come away with Me, Jones’s debut. But it’s hard to believe that anyone saw that coming. Blue Note is recognized as a record label that’s actually more interested in the music rather than the units sold. This gives Jones a luxury that many pop artists simply don’t have. So she might have had a little bit more freedom recording her new album, Feels Like Home, than other new artists possess.
By now, everyone knows that Jones, who grew up with her mother in Texas, is also the daughter of Ravi Shankar. On her way to selling 18 million copies of her debut, which hit the racks when Jones was a mere 22 years young, Come away with Me reeled in eight Grammy awards, and enough gigs to keep Jones and her band touring for two years straight. After cutting her teeth at such a young age, it’s no wonder Jones wanted to make an album that at least alludes to feelings of comfort and familiarity. This is not to say that Feels Like Home feels, well, familiar. On the contrary, Jones selected a collection of songs that evoke feeling without reminding the listener that they heard them some place else—like on the ubiquitous Come away with Me.
For a woman with such blatant name recognition, Norah Jones is incredibly equitable when it comes to incorporating her band members’ writing. In part, this good deed will ensure a steady stream of publishing royalty income to the musicians who helped get her to the top. But it also answers several critics who speculated that Jones might not be much more than a pretty face with a pretty voice who happens to play a nice piano. Many of the hit songs on Come Away With Me were written by either Jesse Harris or Jones’s boyfriend and bass player Lee Alexander. On Feels Like Home, Jones seeks to silence her critics immediately with the opening standout single “Sunrise”, which she and Alexander penned together. The title of the tune lasts all day, giving Jones ample time to serenade her listeners. She suggests Billie Holiday with her voice here, which is complemented by acoustic guitar picking by Kevin Breit so fine it doesn’t seem real.
It should go without saying that each track on Feels Like Home receives the attention of Norah Jones’s exquisite voice. While many critics of the album complain about the slow pace of the music, relegating it to little more than background music, it’s hard to believe that they were paying attention. There simply isn’t another singer working in pop music now that holds a candle to Jones. You can throw her up against Britney or Beyoncé, Xtina, or Mariah—any of the so-called divas who can “really” sing—and she blows them all away. All the rest sound like all the rest compared to Jones’ divine instinct for harmony and inflection. Of course, there are tracks on Feels Like Home where Jones proves herself especially exceptional. “Carnival Town” is a fine standout, with Nashville-style harmonizing that will place you on top of your convertible’s backseat on a balmy summer evening, sipping lemonade and welcoming the sunset.
“Be Here to Love Me” is a Townes Van Zandt cover from his early album Our Mother of the Mountain that Jones resurrects with the help of the Band’s Garth Hudson on accordion and a string section that’s gone electric. With the heart of a country girl, Jones lends enough soul to this classic that you wish she’d make good on her promise to record an album of standards and favorites. Hudson performs again on the album, joined by former band mate Levon Helm on “What Am I to You?” The quality of Jones’s voice resonates far beyond the mere 24 years she’s been on earth. Here, she melts you with buttery sultriness that simply defies age.
“Creepin’ In” finds Jones in a duet with legendary singer Dolly Parton, and together they provide the album’s most energetic performance. “Creepin’ In” also features more great acoustic guitar from Kevin Breit, and a steady rhythm section anchored by Lee Alexander’s bass. The song is followed by one of the album’s true highlights, “Toes”, which Jones sings herself like a lullaby spiritual. It’s deep and moody and yearning in a way that will change where you are at by the time Jones is done.
Jones decided to end the album by herself, with a cover of an old Duke Ellington song called “Melancholia”, to which she added lyrics and re-titled “Don’t Miss You At All”. With just Jones’s voice and her piano to take you out, she cradles you in loneliness and heartbreak. Her voice is spectacular, but again, she’s more than just a pretty voice. Years of study gave her a deep understanding of how to play jazz. She’s really a jazz musician who happens to have crossed over. This is the type of torch song that would have been just at home 50 or 60 years ago as it is today. To say that Jones is timeless at age 24 may be a bit of an overstatement. Here, she’s not trying to keep up with the Strokes or beat the sophomore slump. She’s just taking her time on a song for all seasons.