My travails, er, travels led me to the hometown of one of my old college roommates and closest friends last week. Over cold beers and bad hamburgers in a sports bar, naturally the subject of music came up. It seems to pop up wherever I go… maybe it’s me? Towards the end of the evening, my friend told me about a YouTube video he’d watched by an old music producer. The guy explained that the use of ProTools and AutoTune took the human elements (what I was describing as the warmth) out of music. It’s the mistakes we make that make it interesting, he said. I said if you want good ol’ fashion, human made music you need to listen to some Norah Jones. My friend, like most people who read this blog was somewhat surprised I was a fan of Norah. Our tastes around here at B&V tend to run toward the louder, rowdier end of the spectrum. The last time my friend and I had talked music it was about Judas Priest’s Sad Wings Of Destiny, so Norah was a bit of a stretch from there. And my buddy knew me in the “if you’re not Van Halen or Led Zeppelin, you need not apply” phase of my music fandom.
There’s just something about Norah Jones that I love. The obvious answer is that voice. Or as we should probably be calling it, “The Voice.” It’s deeper than that, though. She burst out in 2002 with the smash Come Away With Me. Often, initial success on that scale can ruin an artist. Rather than be confined by any genre or locked down in the soccer mom section of the record store, by her third album, Not Too Late, Norah was already expanding the palette from which she created her music. Actually, when you go back and listen to Come Away With Me now, all these years later you can hear the blue print of the diversity in her music already there, ingrained in the DNA of what she was doing. The track “Lonestar” was country, which she later mined more deeply with her side project The Little Willies. You could also detect a lot of jazz and roots music weaved in with what she was doing. It was all there from the beginning.
Norah has now returned with what is being hailed as a new “album,” Begin Again. At only 7 songs, I tend to think of it as more of an EP. In the old days, LPs or long players were full length albums. EPs, or extended players, were only three or four songs, longer than a single but not as long as an LP. Now, if you’re Led Zeppelin, you might be able to put out an LP with only seven songs, but that’s only because you’ve got tracks like “Achilles Last Stand” that ran over 10 minutes. Or the Allman Brothers who once had one song that ran across both sides of a single album, “Mountain Jam” (properly named, as it was hard to climb over). With all that in mind, I’m calling Begin Again an EP rather than an LP, but that’s because I’m a tad on the anal retentive side. And while it’s not rock and roll in the strictest sense, it’s not pop music. Pop music, which derived its name from bubble gum, was only meant to be enjoyed as long as the sugar lasted… once it was gone, spit it out and move to the next song. Rock and roll is meant to sustain you like steak or vitamins. It’s genuine music played sincerely. Norah may not have squealing guitars but it’s certainly genuine music played extremely sincerely. It’s music you’ll return to again and again.
This new EP has been hailed in most of what I’ve read as being “eclectic.” When I think of eclectic, I tend to think of the White Album from the Beatles. That’s a pretty high bar, I know. I can’t say this album is that eclectic, but what is? There’s no “Revolution No. 9” and then a pivot to “Martha My Dear” here. Norah does collaborate with different people across the songs so there are some different sounds here. She’s collaborated before with artists as diverse as Danger Mouse and Jack White to Ryan Adams and Keith Richards. Here we find Jeff Tweedy from Wilco and producer Thomas Bartlett working with Norah amongst others. And while she mixes it up, in terms of sounds here, it’s all held together pretty well because of her vocals. Apparently she wanted to keep it light, collaborate with a lot of different people and have some fun. She decreed that no song should take more than 3 days to record… the way they did it in the old days. I like that approach.
From the “eclectic” end of the spectrum, there are some different sounds from Norah here. The opening track, “My Heart Is Full” is the most “experimental” thing on here. It’s just her voice building over percussive and keyboard elements. The song is subtly political. As the song builds to a vocal climax, where Norah exclaims “I will rise, I will rise” I’m all in, but then it drops back to the quiet verses. I expected more of a musical explosion with that vocal declaration. It’s a good track but it feels underdeveloped. Another song that I’ll put on the eclectic list, is one of the two collaborations with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, “Song With No Name.” It’s an acoustic dirge of a song with some nice guitar (both acoustic and some electric atmospherics) from Tweedy. It’s got dark lyrics from the viewpoint of a lover whose been scorned… “if I had a gun, if I had a knife.” It’s one of the best tracks here. Finally the most eclectic thing on here is “Uh-Oh” one of the collaborations with producer Thomas Bartlett. It’s a modern, percussion and synth number but somehow still remains pretty laid back. It’s another tune about a lover threatening to strangle her man… Norah seems to want to take over the mantle of tough-chick from Loretta Lynn who famously sang about “Fist City.” All of these tracks are still top notch, they’re just not what you’d expect.
The four additional tracks are what I’d describe as more traditional Norah Jones tracks. “Begin Again” is a jazzy number with some fierce piano playing from Norah. Never underestimate how great she is tickling the ivories. This is an even more direct political track, which makes me love it even more. “It Was You” is classic, sexy Norah. The sound of that song evokes the feeling of revealing who you really are, your true self, to a lover. It’s hypnotic. “Wintertime,” the second collaboration with Tweedy is also one of the best tracks here… I’d almost like to see those two do a whole album together… my only regret is Tweedy doesn’t duet with her. “Wintertime” is just a great love song. It wouldn’t have been out of place on Come Away With Me. “Just A Little Bit” is as jazz-inflected as Norah gets. It’s another seduction tune. I’ve already gone in-depth on that one in my earlier write up about the first few tracks released, On The Mellow End: Norah Jones’ Three New Songs From Upcoming EP, ‘Begin Again’, so I won’t belabor it again. It’s my favorite track here…she saved the best for last.
It’s brief, at 7 songs, but Begin Again is another brilliant entry in Jones’ catalog. The woman is so talented she makes it look easy. Put this one on with someone you love, pour something strong and just see where the wind and the music take you…