Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Not there yet

Norah Jones
Not Too Late
Score: 4

Norah Jones has a nice voice: honeyed but not cloying, soothing but not tiresome.

She also has a knack for interpretation. That's why she can cover Hank Williams, Hoagy Carmichael, Elvis and Nick Drake and have each come out sounding like her own. Even if she isn't reinventing a song, she's able to absorb its essence, then let her passion for it emanate.

But that's also because she's covering good songs. When the writing is weak, she can slip into listlessness.

Jones' greatest talents don't lie in songwriting. This proves unmistakable on her third album, Not Too Late. 2002's Come Away With Me (the disc that won her all those Grammys) involved Jesse Harris behind the scenes. He wrote or co-wrote nearly a third of its songs, and their partnership inspired a dynamic that was as arresting as it was assured. On 2004's
Feels Like Home
, Harris' role shrank to playing acoustic guitar.
On two songs.

Meanwhile, the contribution of her other collaborator, bassist Lee Alexander, remained constant: roughly three songs per album.

This time, though, Jones took over. She's the principal songwriter on 12 of 13 tracks. Not that it's wrong for her to write her own material, but she stumbles many times leaping to a wider role.

"Thinking About You" feels rudimentary. The lyrics are cliche: "Yesterday I saw the sun shining / And the leaves were falling down softly / My cold hands needed a warm, warm touch / And I was thinking about you." With some ingenuity, the song could work. No luck. Jones and the band play it straight down the middle, as flat as the lyrics.

"Not My Friend" is similarly adrift, although it does feature some curious muted guitar hemorrhaging in the background.

Neither song has a memorable melody, and that makes the other failings of each only more apparent.

Jones doesn't boggle minds with her words. She doesn't have a five-octave voice. She doesn't experiment with synthesizers, samplers or beats. And she favors the soft-and-measured approach more often than not. So, until one of these things changes, melodies are more crucial to her songs.

Unfortunately, the one with the most memorable melody, "My Dear Country," happens to be the one with the most cringeworthy lyrics. "'Twas Halloween and the ghosts were out" it begins, before revealing that Election Day, believe it or not, is a even scarier occasion because of a certain outcome at the polls, and because of a certain president. A stagger-step piano tempo sends it toward the schmaltzy conclusion: "I love the things that you've given me / And most of all that I am free / To have a song that I can sing / On election day." Those words might win over the civics professor, but that's about it.

Lyrically, the country-tinged "Little Room" acts like it wants to be sexy (hint: There's a bed). Yet it ends up being silly because of more than 30 seconds of amateurish whistling (by Daru Oda).

The lone song on which someone else did the bulk of the writing, "Sinkin' Soon," shines as the album's finest moment. Jones steps out of her comfort zone and into a slinky, cabaret style, while the band, mostly hushed throughout the album, bursts to life. The plucks of a mandolin take you down to splash in the steerage section, where the water's rising fast. The pots-and-pans percussion and brass come in when the ship starts to list. The coolest trombone ever yelps and simulates drowning.

To be sure, Not Too Late is scattered with small victories: the upright basses played with bows on "Broken," the lyrics on "Little Room," the love-and-war tale with a twist "Wish I Could." Jones summons a wonderful peace on the Sarah McLachlan-indebted "Rosie's Lullaby" over electric organ and a rocking-chair snare groove.

With good songs, Jones is fine. When they fail her, however, she becomes forgettable. Her songs fade into the background. Coffeehouse territory. No more important than the wallpaper.


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