Jones takes the easy (listening) way out

January 30, 2007


Pop chanteuse Norah Jones has never hesitated to pay homage to her musical idols, a list that includes stellar names such as Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline, Duke Ellington and Ray Charles.

Fifteen million albums and eight Grammys into a still very young career, the 27-year-old musician releases her third album today. Unfortunately, the music on "Not Too Late" continues to have the same relationship to the sounds of her heroes that a frothy chai latte has to a double espresso: It's a sugary concoction, pleasant enough in small doses, but hardly in the same highly caffeinated family as the real thing.

Judging from her numerous interviews, no one has been more surprised than Jones that her gentle, humble balladry has connected with listeners on such a mass level. She's cooperated with but hardly tried to manipulate the pop starmaking machinery, and she's provided ample proof of her love for a wide-ranging variety of sounds via low-key side projects, playing everything from glam rock to country cabaret as well as contributing to noise-rocker Mike Patton's Peeping Tom.

It's just too bad that there's little of that adventurous spirit here.

To be sure, there's a bit more fire on "Not Too Late" than there was on "Come Away With Me" (2002) or "Feels Like Home" (2004). Jones has broken from her former producer, the oh-so-tasteful Arif Mardin, in favor of working with Lee Alexander, her songwriting partner, bassist and boyfriend. They craft a very simple, immediate and appealing sound meant to evoke a live recording in an intimate cabaret. And for the first time, Jones has had a hand in writing every one of the album's 13 tracks.

In addition to the sweet nothings that have marked her music in the past -- and to be sure, there's still plenty of romance on this album, nicely timed for Valentine's Day gift-giving -- Jones is thinking a lot about weightier and more worldly issues. The lulling opening track, "Wish I Could," is a waltz that contemplates the fate of a soldier who may have been killed in Iraq; Jones says it was inspired by a date she had in 1999 with someone serving in the military, and now she's wondering if he's still alive.

"My Dear Country" is a fragile piano ballad that finds the singer mulling over our eroding freedoms from the perspective of the short stretch between Halloween and Nov. 3. "Fear's the only thing I saw/And three days later 'twas clear to all/That nothing is as scary as Election Day," she coos. And it's hard not to hear the back-porch stomp of "Sinkin' Soon" without thinking of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina: "In a boat that's built of sticks and hay/We drifted from the shore/With a captain who's too proud to say/That he dropped the oar. ... We're gonna be sinkin' soon."

But no matter how emotional the lyrics are, or how dark the subject matter, Jones never projects more passion in her voice than you'd hear in the average lullaby, and she's hardly ever any more powerful, even on a soulful slow-grind such as "Thinking About You" or a would-be gritty country ballad like "Wish I Could."

The effect of all of this gentle, husky crooning combines with the tinkling pianos, sawing cellos, bowed basses and lazy rhythms for a listening experience that is ultimately every bit as soothing and sleep-inducing.


"Not Too Late"
Critic's rating: 2 stars