LP Review: Norah Jones’ “Day Breaks,” The Piano Strikes Back!

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Ah, Norah Jones… I remember the first time I heard that voice. It sounded timeless. The singer could be 20 or 70, I couldn’t be sure. I was in my car with the sun roof open on an unusually warm, late-fall evening in 2002 when the song “Come Away With Me” came on the radio. I had recently moved in with and proposed to the Rock Chick. My life prior to that was “unsettled” to be kind, rootless if I were to be honest. All that had changed. I had just landed at the airport and was driving home on that warm, fall evening and I flipped over to the Public Radio station and that’s when I first heard Norah Jones sing. Instead of landing and heading to a bar to meet a friend or home to an empty apartment, for the first time ever, I was heading to a house that was more than that – I was heading to a home. Norah’s vocal seemed to beckon me towards that home, toward that better, happier life with the Rock Chick. Her voice embraced me like a warm hug. It was one of the singularly most happy times of my life.

I bought her first album the next day. I was frankly surprised to find a work of that depth, and a voice that rich came from a twenty-something year old. There was a lot of buzz around that album, that this was a new “jazz chanteuse” who’d come out of nowhere to stun the world. I never quite followed that “jazz” label they hung on her. I always thought it was because she was on the Bluenote record label that they spun her music that way. That and she played the piano, which has a rich jazz heritage. Yes, there were jazz accents on the LP, “Come Away With Me” but there was also a bluesy feel and I detected some elements of country (which would later come to flower with her excellent, fun side project The Little Willies). If forced to label her music, to me, I’d have said she was more 70’s-style singer-songwriter than anything. I heard more Janis Ian than Nina Simone.

Her second album, “Feels Like Home” followed the formula of her first album, although the Dolly Parton duet showed that country flavor a little more strongly, and the LP was very successful. Then, like a lot of artists who have had that kind of success, Norah started to experiment and branch out in terms of her sound. She stopped writing on the piano and started writing songs on guitar. I think it’s essential for any artist in any medium to stretch themselves and that’s what Norah did. I enjoyed each of her next three albums which each employed a slightly different tilt on her sound. The one consistent element is that amazing voice. I say it all the time, she could sing the phone book and I’d buy the album. I probably liked “The Fall” the best of that trio of LPs, do yourself a favor and check that one out. “Little Broken Hearts” which was done with Danger Mouse was probably the farthest from her early sound that she got, but I enjoyed it too. “Little Broken Hearts” was where I began to notice that Norah has developed a penchant for marrying dark lyrics with light, almost happy melodies. There’s nothing like delivering bad news with a smile.

I was delighted when I saw that after a 4 year absence (not including the Billie Joe Armstrong duets record, “Foreverly”) Norah was returning with her new album “Day Breaks.” Once again, there was a lot of buzz around this record as being a “return to her early sound” or “a return to her ‘Come Away With Me’ sound.” I bought into all that when I heard the first single, “Carry On.” After hearing “Day Breaks” in it’s entirety and reading  Norah say “I couldn’t have recorded this album when I was twenty,” I tend to disagree with categorizing this as “Come Away With Me 2.” This album is more sophisticated and the music is much more complex than that of her early albums. This really has more of a jazz flavor to it. You can hear fingers popping bass strings on the stand up bass, and Norah’s piano playing is more aggressive, fingers hitting keys hard. There is some beautiful horn work courtesy of Wayne Shorter. It is similar to her earlier work in that it signals Norah’s return to writing on piano. The piano “strikes back” if you will…

No song captures the sounds I just described more than the first track, “Burn.” It sets the jazz mood. “Flipside” is a jazzy, chugging song that almost reminds me of an old train song, it has that kind of rhythm. “Peace” is a beautiful piano driven jazzy-ballad. “Sleeping Wild” sounds like a song you’d hear in a French cafe after the war. When she digs into the jazz sound her music is, like her voice, just timeless. It’s hard to tell the cover songs, like Duke Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine” from the originals. The music on these songs is complex but I don’t mean in any way that they are difficult to listen to. They are as smooth and enjoyable to listen to as anything she’s recorded.

Beyond the piano-bass-horn-based jazz, she also has that patented Norah Jones sound. “Carry On” was the beautiful first single, already reviewed on BourbonAndVinyl. The standout track for me, the one that sticks in my head, is “Tragedy.” Over a beautiful, hummable melody she sings about the tragedy of alcoholism. I don’t know why but for some reason, perhaps because the word “Hallelujah” appears toward the end, I had a feeling this song was about Jeff Buckley and his drunken, tragic drowning. “Day Breaks” is another classic Norah Jones song, but with a spacey sound I really liked. Her taste in cover songs remains impeccable, and here she does Neil Young’s “Don’t Be Denied” with some lyrical tweaks and makes it her own.

I’ve read some reviews claiming this album is a culmination of all the sounds/styles that have come before it. I don’t hear that here, but there are some songs that sound like they could be on any Norah Jones LP – “Once I Had A Laugh,” “Then There Was You,” and “Wonderful Time For Love” are all great Norah ballads. “Once I Had A Laugh” in particular stands out for me. Her melodies just stick in my head.

This album isn’t a return to an earlier sound, this is the sound of an artist who continues to challenge herself and break new ground. I agree with Norah, I don’t think she could have made this album when she was twenty, but who could have? This is a really great album and gets a high recommendation from BourbonAndVinyl. This one is another of those, late night, tumbler full of bourbon kind of albums… only in this case, you might not want to be ruminating alone, this might one where you pull him/her onto the couch with you… if you follow me. It’s a dark ride people, love somebody.

Cheers!

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