Norah Jones: Feels Like Home
Label: Blue Note
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- On one hand, it may be hard to feel sorry for an attractive and talented twenty-some-year-old overnight pop sensation, but look at it this way: A few years ago, Norah Jones was simply a young musician (okay, the daughter of sitar maestro and ‘60s pop culture guru Ravi Shankar, but still a young untested musician) looking for her niche. Not unlike Jed Clampett shootin’ at some food, Jones found not just a career starting point, but unwittingly tapped into a spouting geyser of media saturation. All of this scrutiny over a mellow-sounding piece of silver plastic could be a tad overwhelming, no? Now, this might be the desired response for some spangle-studded song-slinger aiming at Next-Big- Deal status, but Jones is cut from classier cloth. She’s a gifted pianist and a natural-born singer who may well prove to be one of the finest vocal stylists of her generation. Simply put, she has the stuff of staying power. Perhaps most impressively, she has the rare ability to be herself even after being thrust onto the twanging tightrope of large-scale success and the expectations that accompany it. More than anything, this is the triumph of Feels Like Home, her follow-up to the multi-platinum Come Away With Me.
Her new disc does what a sophomore effort ought to do: wisely, it stays true to Jones’ musical strengths, shows incremental growth and builds upon the foundation established on her first record. With the help of her trusty Handsome Band (who receive back cover co-billing), the blues, country and cocktail-styled jazz elements that appeared on Come Away With Me have undergone an alchemy wherein all these styles swim freely through one another’s musical gene pool. The results make for a refreshing, spacious sound that sidesteps simplistic categorization. Also deserving of mention here is Jones’ co-producer, the legendary Arif Marden. Marden, who was instrumental in building the career of Aretha Franklin, adheres to the old school of record producing. That is, he knows talent when he hears it, and - more importantly - he knows how to stay out of its way. Despite his understated presence, Marden’s influence can be felt in the record’s sparse arrangements and easygoing feel.
Perhaps for the benefit of pundits who dubbed her "Snorah" in reference to her debut’s somnambulant approach, Jones has upped the rhythmic ante a bit this time. Even so, the overall effect is decidedly low-key. While the record’s low-lit vibe is indeed comforting, its focus on atmosphere makes for few standout moments. The Parisian-flavored "Carnival Town" distinguishes itself with breathtaking simplicity, placing only the barest of instrumentation behind Jones’ lusciously warm, multi-tracked vocals. Her gently chugging duet with Dolly Parton, "Creepin’ In," features a delightful performance and novel imagery that deals with the things - both desired and undesired - that make their way into our vulnerable places: "there’s a big ol’ hole/ that’s gone right through the sole/ of this old shoe/ and the water on the ground/ ain’t got no place else it found/ so it’s only got one thing left to do/ creep on in…" The sometimes indistinct character of modern relationships is a recurring theme on cuts like "In The Morning" and the earthy "What Am I To You," a pair of numbers on which Jones evokes a young Bonnie Raitt. A repentant response to unadvised intimacy appears in "Humble Me," a prayer wrapped inside a story of heartbreak and regret. In "The Prettiest Thing," from which the CD draws its title, Jones sings of the simple beauty of things "dusty as the handle on the door/ rusty as a nail stuck in the old pine floor/ looks like home to me." The song fittingly sums up the uncomplicated pleasures to be found in the rustic, lived-in sound of Feels Like Home.
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Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.