April 2004

Norah Jones - Feels Like Home
Blue Note Records 7243 5 84800 0 9
Released: 2004

by Joseph Taylor

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

Norah Jones's debut, Come Away with Me, has sold a lot of copies (8 million according to Rolling Stone, 18 million according to Slate), so there's a good chance you or several of your neighbors own it. Jones swept last year's Grammy Awards, and that included winning what Colin Hay of Men at Work refers to as the "Best New Artist/Kiss of Death" Grammy. It was perhaps inevitable that Ms. Jones would see some backlash. While her record company, Blue Note, has suggested she was a word-of-mouth phenomenon, music writers have felt compelled to point out that her success was the result of some very canny marketing.

In fact, Blue Note did market Come Away with Me shrewdly. One of the smartest things the label did was convince Starbucks to play songs from the disc on their sound systems and display it prominently for sale in their stores. Blue Note made some other sharp promotional decisions, such as selling the disc at deep discount (I saw it going for as little as $8.98) to get the ball rolling. In the end, though, I think Ms. Jones benefited from a common phenomenon: Each year baby boomers allow themselves one new, slightly unusual CD in addition to the Sting or James Taylor titles they buy. In 2002 that disc was O Brother, Where Art Thou; in 2003 it was Come Away with Me.

I bought Come Away with Me for my wife, and I have to admit that I shrugged it off as a chick disc. And it is a medium-weight pop recording. A lot of jazz fans and musicians insist it's not jazz and, therefore, shouldn't have been released on Blue Note. They're probably right. Blue Note has a long and venerable tradition in jazz, and Come Away with Me is a compromise. But that doesn't mean it's a bad record or a cynically commercial one. It grew on me. The playing is notably subtle and I found that the CD held up well to repeated listening. Jones's version of "Cold, Cold Heart" was a miscalculation -- she didn't seem to understand anything about the song -- but most of the rest of the disc was enjoyable and well crafted.

I doubt Ms. Jones’s new disc, Feels Like Home, will sell anything like her debut, and I’d be surprised if Blue Note had its hopes set that high. Her detractors, I’m sure, are hoping it will flop. If Jones is at all intimidated by anyone else’s expectations, it doesn’t show -- Feels Like Home is better in almost every way than its predecessor. Jones is more confident and her band, as important an asset to her as her voice, feels more relaxed than on the first disc (and sounds much sharper). In addition, the songs are markedly better, more emotionally involving and melodically challenging.

"Sunrise" eases us into Feels Like Home with a gentle stand-up bass line and a softly strummed acoustic guitar. As Jones begins to sing, you’ll notice that her voice sounds less forced than it sometimes did on her first disc. She never oversang on Come Away with Me, but on occasion she sounded too self-conscious, as if she were listening too closely to the sound of her own voice in the studio headphones. "Sunshine" begins the disc on an assured but controlled note, one that seems less overtly commercial than "Don’t Know Why," the song that opened Come Away with Me. Jones adds a few relaxed, bluesy piano lines to the song and a brief but nicely played solo that maintains the track’s light feel.

As many times as I’ve listened to Come Away with Me, I never took note of Jones’s piano playing. On Feels Like Home it plays a central role. Her electric piano lines on "What Am I To You?" have the loose funkiness of Ralph MacDonald’s '70s session work for Atlantic Records, and her economical playing throughout the disc is the starting point for many of the arrangements. And while it’s obvious she’s the star here, she gives the other musicians on the disc plenty of room to shine. Tony Scherr’s slide guitar is the centerpiece of "What Am I To You?," and his clean, edgy solo nearly steals the show.

Jones’s interpretation of "Be Here to Love Me" by Townes Van Zandt shows how much she and her band can bring to a song. She sings with great feeling without ever overwhelming the song -- for a vocalist of her skills, she’s remarkably understated. She reaches effortlessly for the high notes and honestly expresses the longing in the lyric. Her band’s restrained yet moving accompaniment gives her the room to find her way in the song. Garth Hudson joins them to add some beautiful accordion lines and Adam Levy’s guitar solo is a model of brevity and honesty. It also sounds great, with just a hint of tube-amp sustain.

While I like Come Away with Me, it is, for the most part, a background record, a white-wine-and-Jacuzzi disc. Feels Like Home is also a quiet record, and you can put it on in the background, but it has more going on in it. Your ear keeps being pulled toward the disc’s unusual and fascinating sounds, such as the banjolin and slit drum on "Sunrise," the pump organ and odd-sounding percussion (credited as "box" in the liner notes) on "Those Sweet Words," and the resonator guitar on "Humble Me." One of the most pleasant sounds on the disc is Daru Oda’s background vocals, featured on nearly all the tracks. Overall, Feels Like Home is grittier, bluesier, and more deeply felt than Come Away With Me.

Jones closes with a Duke Ellington melody, "Melancholia," that she set words to (she retitles it "Don’t Miss You at All"). Accompanying herself on piano, she turns in the closest thing to a genuine jazz vocal she’s done so far -- she also captures some of Ellington’s casual elegance in her piano playing. There is one misstep on the disc. "Creepin’ In" proves definitively that Norah Jones can’t sing country, especially when Dolly Parton joins her to show her how it’s done.

But Feels Like Home is filled with many rewarding moments and it’s exceptionally well played. It’s not the truly great disc I now think Norah Jones is capable of making, but it’s a step closer.