Jones perfects the soft sell

The singer's new disc is full of her trademark sugary sounds, but a little more spice would be nice.

Published January 30, 2007

For such a quiet, humble performer, folk-jazz hybrid Norah Jones packs serious sales punch. The 27-year-old daughter of sitar star and Beatles confidante Ravi Shankar, Jones is the bestselling female artist of the 21st century. She has sold 30-million albums worldwide - and before today, she had released only two solo discs. She has also won eight Grammys, including two for Here We Go Again, her 2004 duet with Ray Charles.

Upon reviewing those statistics, my immediate reaction was: Really? But once I pondered for a while and queued up her opium-dream voice and soft piano playing, I thought: Really?!

It's not that I don't like Jones. I like her. I do. It's just that she excels at dinner music, makeout music, relaxation music. Sure, she's incredibly lovely to look at, but let's be honest. When someone puts Norah Jones on the stereo, someone will inevitably whisper, "Oh, that's nice" and then either kiss you, tuck you in or refill your chardonnay. The way Jones sells discs, you'd think she was rocking arenas from here to Oxnard. In a booty-shaking sea of Beyonces, Norah Jones is an anomaly, an antipop act with MTV oomph.

Jones' new album, the 13-track Not Too Late, will no doubt sell like gangbusters, as well. But it's her safest disc yet, often the aural equivalent of the other side of the pillow: cool, soft and just what I need to fall asleep. She has always been sly enough to stay one step ahead of somnambulism, but here Jones gets too daydreamy. God forbid anyone's listening and operating heavy machinery.

Curiously enough, the album's themes are anything but cushy: love during wartime, maintaining hope among the hopeless. Jones had a writing hand in every track, and kudos to her for getting political. But she and producer-songwriter-boyfriend Lee Alexander too often frame her smart, complex words in such delicate surroundings, your focus gets fuzzy.

Plus Jones' voice is both a blessing and a curse. It's a gorgeous thing indeed, soft and high with a sneaky lower register. It's like honey that gathers at the bottom of your tea cup. But sometimes she doesn't explore its outer reaches enough. And when both her voice and her music lack an edge, a wrinkle, a twist, the lushness overwhelms.

First single Thinking About You is a midtempo breakup ballad with a Dusty in Memphis feel. With its lumbering organ burbles and smoldering horn section, it's entirely pleasant and, when nothing of note happens, entirely forgettable. Sometimes she's not even that aggressive. Take Wake Me Up, which is more than a telling title. Alexander's lap steel should come with NoDoz, and drummer Andy Borger should have his brushes taken from him. As for Jones, she sounds as if she, too, is mesmerized by her voice.

Jones is too talented for the album to be a total letdown. Opening song Wish I Could is a Dylanesque story song involving lost loves and fallen soldiers. Two dueling cellos, played by Julia Kent and Jeff Ziegler, add a mournful foundation, and Jones signals her misery by hitting a high, sad note that threatens to break. Oh, it's good.

And Jones' sales figures make total sense when she shows off her dark, humorous side and that saucer-eyed sex appeal. On Sinkin' Soon, a political rip for sure, she sings like a last-call saloon singer, a little loopy herself as the brass section bops and belches: "We drifted from the shore, with a captain who's too proud to say he dropped the oar." It's like a slow, sinister rag, old-timey drinkin' music used to address modern problems.

Be My Somebody is also a gem. It's the story of a boozy couple who spar in the kitchen yet stay helplessly, hopelessly in love. Working the Wurlitzer, a fiery Jones points at a paramour and tries to "make some sense of the words that are pouring out of your crooked spout." It's a dusty, little blues vamp: drums cruising, guitars flirting, organ humming. This is the Norah Jones who breaks sales records, a musician who knows the difference between sly seduction and crass sexploits. That's why we like her. That's why we bother to stay awake.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His blog is blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.



Norah Jones

Not Too Late (Blue Note) Grade: B-