Saturday, April 13, 2013

Norah Jones's DVD Extra Convinces Me She's Not Too Late

The Good: Excellent voice, decent lyrics, good music, Music videos on DVD
The Bad: Much of the music still blends together, SHORT!
The Basics: Norah Jones lives up to her potential on a decent album accompanied by fun, quirky music videos and live performances.

It has recently come to my attention that there are whole legions of people who like to listen to music that they don't have to think about. As much as it baffles me, there are - apparently - hordes of people for whom listening to music is not so much an experience that is designed to inspire the imagination, please the listener or hear something that is expressed poetically to music. It seems these people judge music by how unobtrusive it is; they use it solely for background noise. Music is not so much an experience as a somewhat more voluminous white noise used to keep . . . I don't know, the voices in one's head at bay. It beats me. I don't listen to music that way.

As a result, up until now, artist Norah Jones has been something of a disappointment to me. I've never disputed that she has a great voice. I've not even ever suggested that her music is not easy to listen to. However, I recall being disappointed in her debut Come Away With Me because the songs had lyrics that were so simple as to be obvious, singsongy and unimpressive. With her sophomore album, Feels Like Home, I found the lyrics somewhat better and the music more full, but also less focused and strangely less diverse in its sound. The music was great for elevator music, but it didn't impress me as inspiring more. With Norah Jones's latest album, Not Too Late, I finally have the Norah Jones experience I've been looking for.

On Not Too Late, Jones wrote or co-wrote all thirteen tracks on the album, which clocks in at 45:23. Despite the brevity of the album, Jones added a DVD to this package that gives it some added value. Not Too Late appears to be very much Norah Jones's musical vision as she co-wrote the songs, sings primary vocals on each track and on most she plays the piano as well. On two tracks, she plays the Wurlitzer and she even gives the electric and acoustic guitars a chance with success.

This album finds Jones fairly firmly in the vocal jazz range, veering away from the ambiguous pop-rock, folksy, vocal compilations of her earlier albums. No, here she comes into her own and her alto voice is amazingly smoky and delightful to listen to. She has excellent range, though she sticks mostly in the alto range this time around. Songs like "Until The End," where she croons beautifully as a master of modulation within her pitch, remind the listener why she was considered an up and coming talent at all. Her voice is reminiscent of early Carole King and on this endeavor there is a sophistication to her abilities that comes right through.

The emphasis on Jones's voice makes her voice the primary musical instrument on this album and it is wisely produced to be front and center on each track. Never buried by the instrumentals, Jones's voice rings forth wondrously. As she opens "Not My Friend" with the soft cry out of "Help me breathe / Help me believe . . ." her voice rings bell-like over the soft piano and it is her voice that dominates and captivates the listener.

There's a freshness, a spontaneity to her voice on this album that is impossible to articulate fully. On Not Too Late, Jones's sense of timing and rhythm comes together to keep the album flowing better than on prior endeavors. The result is nothing close to the narcolepsy that her prior works may have inspired. Instead, here the vocals are sharp and distinctive.

It may be that her voice is so strong because she is so confident about what she is singing. Having co-written all of the songs, Jones is saying something that she wants to say. Most of the songs are musings on the world around the album's narrator, varying from daydreaming about a lover ("Thinking About You") to loss and a breakup ("Wake Me Up") to forcing creativity ("Little Room"). Thematically, this is a broad album and that's a plus.

Here Jones reaches a level of lyrical quality that surpasses her prior works quite easily. She writes with a level of sophistication that is anything but singsong in nature. She has a jazz artist's sense of rhythm and timing and here she has stories to tell and things to say. She beautifully articulates the state of voting when she sings ". . . fear's the only thing I saw / And three days later was clear to all / That nothing is as scary as Election Day / But the day after is darker / And darker and darker it goes / Who knows maybe the plans will change / Who knows maybe he's not deranged" ("My Dear Country"). This is a far cry from the simplicity of the lyrics from her his "Don't Know Why."

But even her obvious single efforts on this album, like "Thinking About You," are better written. Jones muses on musing and she does it wonderfully with lines like "So when you sail across the ocean waters / And you reach the other side safely / Could you smile a little smile for me / 'Cuz I'll be thinking about you" ("Thinking About You").

Moreover, the arrangement is wonderful. Jones follows the soft, sleepy song "Not My Friend" with the louder, more full-sounding "Thinking About You." The songs flow well with a sense of what works best back to back to back making the album a solid listening experience. I just find myself wishing it were longer.

The DVD makes up some for that. Featuring videos for three of the tracks, an interview with Norah Jones where she talks about the genesis of several of the songs and the music videos, the DVD is a treat for those who are glad to see Jones come into her own. Her videos for "Thinking About You" and "Sinkin' Soon" are beautifully creative and Jones seems to be having fun in the behind the scenes featurette on them. As well, there are live performances that hold up well over multiple viewings.

Not Too Late is a great album for those previously disappointed with Norah Jones and great for anyone who wants to listen to some decent piano-driven vocal jazz with a richer sound.

The best track is the politically involved "My Dear Country," the weak link is the somewhat less distinctive "Broken."

For other works by Norah Jones, please visit my reviews of:
. . .Little Broken Hearts
The Fall
Feels Like Home
Come Away With Me


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the music reviews I have written.

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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