Artist Update: Norah Jones

posted by Tom Moon on November 17, 2009 at 6:59 pm
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Thoughts on Norah Jones' career makeover, and her new album The Fall.

For a while there, at least as long as it took to promote the two respectible albums that followed her monster debut Come Away With Me, it looked like Norah Jones was set for life. She could ride that chanteuse thing forever. She could reel off those luminous, self-pitying torch ballads one after another. She’d established a brand, and like all saavy brand managers, she seemed to know her wheelhouse and exactly how far to stray from it.

Until now.

This week, Jones ditches the cozy cocoon of the torchy cabaret and sets off on a repositioning mission, placing herself somewhere in the vicinity of the present. The scantily-clad shrill-diva present. The ProTools present. The Beyonce/Kanye present. For her fourth effort The Fall, the singer and songwriter wrote and gathered material that is similar in spirit and aspiration (and backbeat!) to the endeavors of our most lavishly overproduced pop stars. The media will seize upon the “risk” involved in this – after all, the Old Coot Society has plenty of members who love Jones just the way she was. And besides, the diva field is a tad overcrowded.

It could be argued that staying put is the best career move for Norah Jones. But apparently with her, the impulse isn’t about dollars or market share – it’s curiosity. As her previous works (including the lively Little Willies side product) show, she’s a seeker, a singer and musician with a restless streak and the confidence to test her spectacularly expressive multi-hued voice in new surroundings. Though some of her longtime accomplices (Jesse Harris) are on board, The Fall is a profoundly new thing – she’s collaborating with a super-successful rock producer (Jacquire King, of the recent Kings of Leon) and a band full of R&B hotshots, on songs that strive to slip some subtlety and dimension into the mostly prefab pop present. That’s an admirable crusade, because it’s not at all clear whether a woman well versed in the Advanced Calculus of Gershwin melodies and the coy come-on (a la Blossom Dearie’s immortal “Lover, peel me a grape”) can connect with an audience for whom “Text me ASAP” qualifies as a profound lyric.

It’s a split-level trick Jones runs here: The tunes on The Fall are more rhythmically assertive, and in terms of production, more contemporary, than anything she’s done before. But her vocal phrasing – that wistful behind-the-beat approach she picked up from the jazz greats – is the same as it ever was. The contrast, it turns out, is sublime and delicious. If you’re tired of divas filling every second of every track with outsized exortations, check Norah Jones here, as she rolls through sweet nothings suffused with yearning and doubt and those deep-in-the-gut tones people emit, involuntarily, when they’ve been wounded by love. This is singing on a human scale.

That duality – the cool chop of modern production providing a foundation for the glowy warmth of Jones’ voice – pretty much defines The Fall, from the slinking opener (“Chasing Pirates”) through a glance toward Fleetwood Mac (“Young Blood”) and a ripe old Texas downer (“Stuck”). The tunes themselves are sturdy, sometimes slight-seeming and a bit unexceptional. Then Jones starts slithering around, singing in that casual, forever-hurt way, and suddenly, unexpectedly, they blossom into something profound. It’s not the words, or the tunes. It’s Jones – and that ache she brushes over the lines, the graceful turns and little twinges that transform ordinary lyrics into expressions of disarming depth.

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#1 from fischöl, newyork - 11/26/2009 4:06

She is allrounder. She has great talent. I have collection of her albums. Thanks for this nice article about her. I am a big fan of her songs.

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