Monday, July 9, 2012

Abandoning Reason For Madness...Or, At Least, Jazz For Pop: The Fall By Norah Jones.

The Good: Rich pop instrumental accompaniment, Decent-enough vocals
The Bad: Overproduced, Short, Unmemorable lyrics
The Basics: A decent pop album, The Fall is a departure from Norah Jones which takes her career into much more average territory.

Continuing with the idea that you can't please everyone, I think it's time to acknowledge two things: 1. Musical artists are not bound by any law, rule or more that demands that they must work in the musical genre we first hear them in for the length of their careers, and 2. Just because a musical artist branches out and tries to jump into a different genre does not mean their foray into that new genre will be successful for them. To wit, Norah Jones began her mainstream musical career in a pretty boring, jazz vocal niche that was repetitive, somewhat bland with the instrumental accompaniment and decidedly underproduced. But since that first album, she has been building her departure, becoming more and more produced with each album and venturing more into bluegrass and energetic country sounds while maintaining her strong vocal roots.

No more. With The Fall, Norah Jones creates a full-on pop-rock album and . . . it's good. The Fall is good, in an inoffensive and unmemorable and very typical pop way. But those who were initially drawn to Norah Jones based upon her smooth, quiet vocals and atypical sound will find nothing on here to bring them back to the album after the initial album. Only "December" sounds like Jones's prior works - though "You've Ruined Me" might not quite sound like one of her prior songs, it sounds like the natural progression of what she was singing and playing before. But those looking for something that screams "Norah Jones" and "familiar" will not find it with The Fall.

With thirteen songs taking up 45:47, The Fall is a new direction for Norah Jones, but it is arguably the direction she wants most to take. Jones wrote eight of the thirteen songs and co-wrote the other five, and she provides all of the lead vocals on the album. As well, Jones plays her piano and keyboards on almost every track. However, Norah Jones is not given any production credit on the album, but considering how involved she is in every other aspect of production on The Fall, it seems reasonable that she is happy with the musical direction for the work.

That said, the musical direction on The Fall is alarming for those used to Norah Jones being synonymous with "mellow." This album is anything but, as is evident from the first single. When one puts The Fall in, they are overwhelmed by the guitars on "Chasing Pirates" which is an unabashed rock and roll song (yes, coming from Norah Jones!) with almost no piano evident to the ear. This trend continues throughout the album with "Even Though" standing out for the presence of the dominant drumming; percussion plays a much bigger role on The Fall than on any of Norah Jones's earlier albums. The guitars are strong on "It's Gonna Be" and Jones establishes herself as an adequate pop rock star.

The problem is, there is so little superlative with The Fall that the novelty of Norah Jones performing in a pop-rock fashion quickly wears off and the listener is left with a few painful truths. The first is, this is an unremarkable pop-rock album. None of the songs stand out, so while I found "Tell Your Mama" fun and I grooved to it each time I listened to this album, I could not recall a single melody. None of the songs have a memorable tune. Second, Jones is already repeating herself on the album. "I Wouldn't Need You" sounds remarkably similar to "Even Though" and there is little real musical diversity within the album. It is very typical pop.

As for Norah Jones's vocal talents, they do manage to come through on several of the songs, though on the more energetic songs like "Even Though" and "It's Gonna Be," Jones is competing for the listener's ear with the instrumental accompaniment. Jones has a beautiful soprano voice which comes through on only a handful of tracks, most notably the moody "Light As A Feather" and "December." But while "Young Blood" stands out for the vocal quality which made Jones famous and illustrates that she can be very articulate when singing at a decent tempo, The Fall is generally devoid of interesting vocals or ones that show off Jones's full vocal range. Instead, she stays high pitched on most every song and whatever register she is in when she starts tends to be where she finishes, with few exceptions.

On the plus side, Jones does seem like she has something to sing about as she sings about love and relationships on The Fall. Her poetry is generally good with some decent imagery and she continues in her trend of presenting musical storysongs. When she sings "I'll pretend my heart's not on fire / If you steal my true love's name / Broke down subway in this city of spires / Tape your picture over his in the frame / We'll imagine we're sleeping revolvers / Shotgun wedding in a strange SoHo / Our chambers hold silvery collars / Gun down werewolves wherever we go" ("Young Blood"), the listener has a strong sense of place and time and with Jones's vocals, the ability to "see" the story in one's mind's eye comes alive. Norah Jones has a creative and wry streak to her, even if some of her songs are more mellow or depressing.

That said, Norah Jones is not a flawless lyricist and those who liked her earlier works might be disappointed when she does not grow past her earlier, simplified rhyme schemes. With her lines "December come to me / I hope I can see / You not just in dreams . . . December won't you come / Back with snow even sun / Don't say that it's done" ("December"), the listener cringes at the lyrical simplicity and the overall sense of repetition, as if Jones had to include something for her initial fan base. But those early songs, like "December" do suffer on the originality front for having very stale rhymes.

The Fall suffers more from the lyrics being unmemorable or unoriginal more than them being unrefined or just plain bad. Even when the rhymes are unmemorable, sometimes Jones creates something with a decent nerical quality. "Waiting" has her musing with singsong rhymes like "Sinking embers glow / Melting icy snow / I am waiting here, / Waiting for you to come home / And I watch them burn / When will I ever learn / If I wait it doesn't mean / You will return," but she makes it work. But between the songs about love and the songs about waiting for love, this is very much a typical Norah Jones and a very typical pop album. While it is good for what it is, most listeners will want more.

The best song is "Young Blood," the low point is the unmemorable "Back To Manhattan."

For other, similar, works, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Feels Like Home - Norah Jones
Painted Desert Serenade - Joshua Kadison
Wicked Little High - Bird York


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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