[15 December 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Norah Jones’ album ‘…featuring’ is a curious effort. It is a compilation album by the world’s most well known easy listening singer, (mostly) chronicling her collaborative efforts on other people’s records. The title, ‘…featuring’ is key here in that Jones is (almost) always, for the duration of these 18 songs, but a mere guest on an album that seems to bear her name. It is anomalous experience. What does it sound like to be a guest at your own party? The collection reveals that it is quite a variable affair.
Although covering an expansive chronological stretch, the cuts here are by no means linear. Jones’ duet with Ray Charles, “Here We Go Again”, which won the Record of the Year Grammy Award in 2005, is preceded directly by her recent whiney collaboration with Scottish outfit Belle and Sebastian, “Little Lou, Prophet Jack, Ugly John” – a song that sounds something like an uninspired rip-off of a Sheryl Crow track from the early millennium.
Neither is the collection generically fluid. It jumps from efforts within the country genre such as with the Little Willies number “Love Me” to the mawkish and incongruously placed Christmas tune “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Willie Nelson, then to a dalliance with hip hop with the duo Outkast, on their track “Take Off Your Cool”.
Obviously, Norah Jones is an artist whose interest traverses generic boundaries. Some fans may be unaware of her somewhat dichotomous ambitions, and as such, will relish having all of these songs in one place. Yet what this collection lacks is a coherent narrative progression. Binding these musical numbers is a uniform sense of lightness – Jones’ pitch perfect voice often pulls together divergent genres into a stream that can be described as maudlin and listenable. At one point, this goes terribly awry when the artist embarks on an imitation of a Joni Mitchell classic. It seems inexplicable. Why would anyone want to hear the angst taken out of Joni Mitchell’s immortal “Court and Spark”? Listening to Jones’ reproduction – emptied of the sentiment of the original – and buried in an extended seven-minute composition arranged by Herbie Hancock, is nothing short of cringe-worthy.
Jones’ strengths lie in her collaborations in alt-country. Her adventures with the Little Willies find the singer unspooling a meaty, character-full quality in her voice; meanwhile, her duets with M Ward in “Blue Bayou” and with Ryan Adams on “Dear John” are just shy of being transcendental.