Norah Jones

TrackAlbum   
Come Away With MeCome Away With Me
Don't Know WhyCome Away With Me
What Am I To You?Feels Like Home
Humble MeFeels Like Home
BrokenNot Too Late
Chasing PiratesThe Fall
You've Ruined MeThe Fall
Happy PillsLittle Broken Hearts
She's 22Little Broken Hearts
Don't Know What It MeansNo Fools, No Fun

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Contributor: Peter Viney

I was an early adopter. I bought Come Away With Me as soon as it came out in 2002 after reading an article. Ravi Shankar’s daughter! Anoushka’s sister! I’d seen both Ravi and Anoushka play in Salisbury Cathedral as the sun set through the stained glass windows. I had to hear a relative doing jazzy country, or perhaps countrified jazz. A week later I bought another copy for a friend’s birthday. She loved it. A few weeks later I decided to buy it for my sister’s birthday. The manager of MVC (yet another long gone record chain) asked me why he was selling me a third copy of the same album. He was appalled. “You really cannot do that!” he said, “She’ll think you forgot, popped into the nearest Tesco supermarket and picked it out of the only ten CDs they sell. No, a top ten CD as a present is like buying a bunch of flowers from a petrol station on Valentine’s Day. Not acceptable.” Of course he was right, and a meditative Windham Hill piano piece by George Winston took its place.

I saw her live in concert at Hammersmith. She was even more beautiful as well as even tinier in real life. Then something happened. Feels Like Home joined it in 2004 in every supermarket rack. It went to #1 in sixteen countries in the week of release. Every time you went into a women’s clothes shop or a restaurant, Don’t Know Why and Feelin’ The Same Way or What Am I To You? were warbling away at that annoying volume. Too quiet to focus on and enjoy, but too loud to ignore. k.d. lang’s Ingenue had suffered the same blanket coverage. High class muzac for the tagliatelle and tapas. It got to the point where I never wanted to hear them again, but her voice and songwriting continued to entrance me.

I got the Deluxe editions of the first two CDs when they appeared with bonus tracks. I explored backward to New York City by The Peter Malik Group, before superstardom, then sideways into her various projects, starting with the Little Willies, running through various duets and sit ins, and finally to 2014’s No Fools, No Fun by her trio with Catherine Popper and Sasha Dobson, Puss n Boots. It became apparent that she wanted to get up from the piano, stop singing only her soft torch songs, strap on a guitar and rock on with the guys … as she had done at Hammersmith early on for a section with Robbie McIntosh on the other guitar. and backing vocals. Her aim is so often Alt-country/Americana.

Because she has a wide interest in working with other musicians, she’s strong on cover versions. She does great bonus tracks. The Band’s Bessie Smith, from The Basement Tapes (though recorded quite separately) was a live staple. She also did Life Is A Carnival and Twilight. She did versions of Dylan’s I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight and Heart Of Mine. Wilco’s Jesus, Etc. appears on both The Fall and No Fools, No Fun. She did Court And Spark on the Herbie Hancock tribute album River: The Joni Letters.

The Little Willies was a reaction to fame, formed in 2003 with Lee Alexander. They specialized in relaxed versions of C&W classics by Hank Williams, Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt. I love the cover of Love Me, made famous by Elvis. Their second album For The Good Times had to wait until 2011, and adds Lovesick Blues, Jolene and visits the catalogues of Lefty Frizzell, Ralph Stanley, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson. I reckon they’ll do a third album as they’re having so much fun, thus deserving of a separate Toppermost. So I’ll ignore them.

She’s recorded with The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, The Foo Fighters, Cyndi Lauper, Keith Richards, Herbie Hancock, Ryan Adams, Tony Bennett, Anoushka Shankar. She has made it easy for the completest by issuing the album … Featuring Norah Jones compiling her collaborations (2010).

In 2013 she released an entire album Foreverly with Billie Joe Armstrong (from Green Day) recreating the Everly Brothers’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. Often Billie Joe takes the lead part (Don) and Norah does the Phil part.

In August 2014 she participated in Beck’s Song Reader project where artists were given a Beck composition which he had never recorded and which existed only as sheet music. She does Just Noise.

There is a lot to choose from and it’s so diverse. Do I go for songs she’s written? Or do I let myself get led into those many cover versions and duets? I’ve avoided covers, though technically Don’t Know Why is a cover, but the original is so obscure it counts as “hers”.

Come Away With Me
Her first hit, title track of the album that Billboard voted “Jazz Album of the decade 2000 -2009”. Yes, we have all heard it too often. But take a deep breathe, cleanse your mind and listen as if you’ve never heard it before.

Don’t Know Why
This seemed the worst offender in the ubiquity area, and was written by Jesse Harris. I looked up the chart information, and surprisingly the single was not a major hit (US #30, UK #67). I bought the CD single to get the bonus tracks, I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight and Ruler of My Heart, and I’m pleased I did. It was the album that got the awards and airplay … and tapas bar/pizzeria play. However this quietly contemplative single got three Grammy awards in 2003, and she has always been an album artist.

What Am I To You?
Feels Like Home generated three singles, Sunrise, What Am I To You? and Those Sweet Words. What Am I To You? joins the first album in its blanket exposure, but that shouldn’t disqualify it because it sums up her instrumental and vocal ability with its languid sexuality, and was the first one I wrote down. Her partner for eight years, bassist Lee Alexander, is as ever significant. Alexander co-wrote seventeen of her songs, and produced her first three albums. There’s an essay somewhere waiting to be written on the penchant of female singers for bass guitarists. Throughout the album, as on the tour we saw, Daru Oda contributes backing vocal. What Am I To You? is a song she had tried to record five times without nailing it. The released track was done when most of her regular band were out of town, and she managed to get two of her heroes to help out. Levon Helm plays drums, and Garth Hudson plays Hammond organ. Then she found Tony Scherr to add the choppy guitar, Norah Jones plays the hypnotic Wurlitzer piano part while Garth Hudson’s organ swirls behind it. Levon’s trademark drums make it a must have track.

Humble Me
I’m limiting myself to two from any album. It’s hard on Feels Like Home as Those Sweet Words virtually demands inclusion, though part of its appeal is the way it flows on effortlessly from What Am I To You? in a similar style. Sunrise was the opening track, and in some ways the innovative one. I’m going to take Humble Me though. It’s just so stripped back. Norah Jones on vocal with very soft pump organ which comes to the fore in the middle section. Lee Alexander on bass, Kevin Breit on resonator guitar.

Broken
Not Too Late is that difficult third album after two major successes. There’s a line between mellow and dreary and predictable, and in spite of exquisite arrangements, the album too often falls on the wrong side of it. The single Thinking About You sounds like “generic Norah Jones” in spite of first rate recording quality. One of the better tracks is Wake Me Up When It’s Over which is all too true. However, Broken is a track I like, with Norah Jones on guitar, just accompanied by cello and bowed bass. Good lyric:

He got blood on his shoes and mud on his brim
Did he do it himself or was it done to him?

Chasing Pirates
Chasing Pirates was the song that opened The Fall in 2009. As with Sunrise, she had the single as the first track, which in the CD era makes sense. She says the drum part was the central idea. The album had a new band, new collaborators and arrangements, and a string section, as on Not Too Late.

You’ve Ruined Me
This song appears twice on The Fall Deluxe edition. I’ll take the main album version over the simpler bonus track. Then there’s a live version on YouTube which is as good as either. Try Back To Manhattan for the richness of the arrangements. The Fall is another album where you need the Deluxe edition for her covers of Wilco’s Jesus, Etc. and her take on Johnny Cash’s Cry, Cry, Cry which manages to recapture that Johnny Cash bass line and crisp guitar.

Happy Pills
2012’s Little Broken Hearts album was co-written with Brian Burton and produced by Danger Mouse (i.e. Brian Burton). At this point, I’d rate it her best ever album, but that does not factor in the unavoidable overplayed fatigue on the first two. They had contemplated an album together in 2009, but put it on ice for a couple of years, during which she recorded The Fall and a second Little Willies record. The stylistic range of Little Broken Hearts is what sets it apart. Happy Pills was the single and best described as poppy. Popping pills, perhaps. The components, highly melodic guitar part, bass with almost a Fleetwood Mac sense of elastic bounce, big female chorus all offset the vulnerable voice. The production as throughout the album is so good that it’s a major factor. This could have sold at the level of all those megastar girl singers. Add the equally catchy second song on the album, Say Goodbye, and you can visualize the stadium world tour with thirty changes of revealing costume and a dozen male dancers … but that would not be Norah Jones’ thing. But Say Goodbye is a gift for any of those stars in sequinned bikinis. Norah Jones however is first and foremost a musician.

She’s 22 (album version)
On the album, She’s 22 is a great song. It was released as a single in a totally remixed thudding bass version, which I bought and disliked, and it held me off buying the album for months. Funnily, once I heard the “clean” album version I got to like the remix. The album cut has the distanced hazy air of the third Velvet Underground album. The competitors, the ones reviews point out, are Take It Back and 4 Broken Hearts. It’s hard to choose … just get the album.

Just Noise from the Song Reader album (2014) is tempting. The concept was that Beck gave out sheet music for songs which he had not recorded nor demoed. The artist then had a completely free hand on arrangement and style. On Just Noise, Norah Jones plays piano and organ as well as lead vocal, and with her recent work with a Stratocaster around her neck, it’s good to be reminded of what a keyboard player she is.

Don’t Know What It Means
No Fools, No Fun is another hard album to choose from, and it’s mainly covers. My flat out favourite is Tom Paxton’s Leaving London, but then Jesus, Etc. is a great song, well done, and the live version of Neil Young’s Down By The River proves what anyone who’s seen her live can tell you … she can really rock out playing electric guitar. The Band’s Twilight is a beautiful song, but I love Rick Danko’s voice on the original too much to be lured away, and to be honest, the drums sound amateur. I think Don’t Know What It Means is the appropriate choice, as she wrote it. It’s almost rockabilly with the basic guitar, bass and drums. It’s a total contrast to Little Broken Hearts.

 

Covers
Norah Jones has such an ability with cover versions I’m going to list ten. Some are collaborations. Here We Go Again is a duet with Ray Charles, Court And Spark is with Herbie Hancock, and long at seven and a half minutes, but more than anyone approaches the complex jazz style of Joni on material like Mingus.

Heart Of Mine (Dylan) New York City
Bessie Smith (The Band) Live in New Orleans DVD
I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (Dylan) Don’t Know Why B-side
Love Me (Elvis Presley) The Little Willies
Here We Go Again (Ray Charles) Genius Loves Company
Court And Spark (Joni Mitchell) River: The Joni Letters
Cry, Cry, Cry, (Johnny Cash) The Fall – Deluxe Edition
Down In The Willow Garden (Everly Bros) Foreverly
Leaving London (Tom Paxton) No Fools, No Fun
Jesus, Etc. (Wilco) No Fools, No Fun

 

Norah Jones official website

Puss n Boots official website

The Little Willies official website

Norah Jones biography (iTunes)

Check out all Peter’s record and concert reviews at his website here.

TopperPost #343

1 Comment

  1. Keith Shackleton
    Sep 2, 2014

    Little Broken Hearts was a revelation. Just that little bit of added acid made all the difference for me. I never thought I’d spend so much time with a Norah Jones album, but it’s very good. Excellent videos too.

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