EP Review: Back On The Mellow End With Norah Jones’ New ‘Begin Again’

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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…

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

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On The Mellow End: Norah Jones’ Three New Songs From Upcoming EP, ‘Begin Again’

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*Above image taken from the internet and likely copyrighted

It’s no secret that all of us down here at B&V are into our screaming, loud rock and roll. Hell, the first concert I ever took the Rock Chick to, before I made an honest woman out of her, was AC/DC on the Stiff Upper Lip tour. I can still remember the topless woman who popped out of the roof of the limo in front of us after the show. The exuberance of rock and roll had sort of… overcome that woman, but I digress. Even last night, after a wicked cocktail the Rock Chick cooked up with tequila and prosecco, I quickly put on some Tom Petty, Playlist: The B&V Best Tom Petty Album/Deep Tracks from our Spotify playlists.

But as with all things, screaming loud rock and roll has it’s time and place. On occasion, the mood or the situation calls for something a tad more mellow. When I’m putting my smooth moves on the Rock Chick, for example, sometimes it requires more subtle music than Motley Crue. Typing that sentence makes me immediately realize two things: a) I am not smooth and b) I have no moves. Another good example of a time that require music that’s a little mellower is my physical feeling today, after a night of drinking tequila, prosecco cocktails… I believe the medical profession would describe my condition as a “hangover.” No risk in life, no reward as the saying goes.

When I’m in need of some music that’s a tad more cerebral, if I don’t put on Van’s Saint Dominic’s Preview, I find myself turning to Norah Jones. As I am prone to repeating myself sometimes in these pages, the woman has the voice of an angel. She could literally record herself singing passages from a newspaper and I’d probably listen to it, despite how depressing the news is these days. I’ve never had the privilege of seeing her in concert, she tends to shun Kansas City but I remain hopeful she’ll come my way.

I don’t know if it’s that voice, but something about Norah’s music is evocative for me. I spent most of my 20s and 30s a wandering, emotional gypsy. I had a series of emotionally damaging relationships. I tended to pick my girlfriends from the FBI’s Most Wanted List… However, by 2002, when Jones’ debut Come Away With Me came out, I had found love and with it a family. I was living in house (that was mine) for the first time in my life, instead of a suitcase or the back of a car. I tended to keep moving in the old days… I was living with the Rock Chick in 2002 and we were engaged. Her daughter, who I now describe as “our” daughter was living with us. I had been traveling for work and my plane landed right around sunset on warm, late-summer day. The sky was turning to purple, but the sun still shone it’s golden hue on the taller trees. As I was driving home from the airport that night surrounded by magnificent colors with my sunroof open, on the public radio station I heard “Come Away With Me” for the first time. We were looking for a song for our first dance at our wedding and I was instantly convinced in that magical moment I’d found the track (I got overridden on that, alas). As I drove that night, for the first time headed to a home and not just the place where I kept my stuff, I felt a level of contentment I never thought I’d know… Norah Jones’ song had completely captured and immortalized that moment for me.

Over the years I have remained a Norah Jones fan. I loved her last album, Day Break LP Review: Norah Jones’ “Day Breaks,” The Piano Strikes Back!. I recently heard she was releasing random singles. I made a mental note to go out and find them and gather them together on a playlist. Luckily it seems that Ms. Jones is handling that for me. She’s gathered together seven tracks that she’ll be releasing in April as an EP, Begin Again. For those of you keeping score, an album is called a “long player” or an LP. An EP is an “extended player.” An EP is longer and has more music than just a single (which used to get released with 1 song on each side), but isn’t quite as long as an album or LP.

From the new EP, Norah has pre-released three new songs. I’ve heard her new music described as “experimental” which may be why she’s releasing just an EP. If there’s nothing thematic or musically similar holding a group of songs together an EP release makes more sense. I like the immediacy of what I’m hearing in these three new tracks. And yes, it’s not hard to predict, I liked all three of the new songs. I like that Norah is willing to take chances. An artist who had so much success early on in her career could be tempted to rest on her laurels. Not Norah, she really pushes herself.

For me, the stand out track of the three is “Just A Little Bit.” It’s a jazzy, syncopated little number. If I close my eyes while I listen, it feels like I’ve just wandered into a basement jazz club, the sound bouncing off the brick walls. I feel the murmur of hushed conversations and smell cocktails and perfume as patrons huddle in the dark and groove on the tune. I can feel the horns as much as hear them. It’s jazzy in all the right ways. When she emphasizes the words, “I’m on fire…” I can feel the heat.

“It Was You” is a more straight up Norah Jones. A sultry, chanteuse style track driven by her beautiful piano and a sax. Norah’s voice drops down in the register and is at it’s very sexiest. “And I knew, and I knew and I knew it was you…” It’s more an invocation to love than chorus. Put this song on late at night and you won’t need my patented smooth moves…

The final track of the three prereleases is a collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, “Wintertime.” I love it when Norah collaborates. She’s got a great track with disgraced singer Ryan Adams, “Dear John” which is one of her career highlights. I loved the album of Everly Brothers covers she did with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, Foreverly. Tweedy doesn’t sing on “Wintertime.” It’s a laid back piano tune and Tweedy plays a rather subdued guitar… at least I think that’s him. The track has a slightly country feel, but that may just be my take on the guitar work. It’s a very solid track.

All of us at B&V are looking forward to hearing the rest of this EP. I love that Norah is continuing to experiment and push herself. This will be very interesting, evocative music from an important artist. Enjoy this one to keep warm in this punishing wintertime!

Cheers!

 

 

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!

On The Mellow End: Norah Jones & Van Morrison Release New Singles, LPs On The Way

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I’m as much of a “Hard Rock” person as anybody, but every now and then you need to turn it down a bit. Actually I’m just a fan of music in general, I just mostly talk about the rockers. There are a couple of new songs, preceding albums, that have come out lately that I feel necessary to comment on… These aren’t party songs, or hard rock songs, these are late night songs. These are tumbler full of Blanton’s bourbon, sitting on the porch songs. These are get your belt off and hold me close songs… Putting on either of these songs could lead you anywhere…

First and foremost is Norah Jones’ new tune “Carry On” from her upcoming album, “Day Breaks.” This is a return to her early, earthy, jazzy style of “Come Away With Me.” It’s as sexy as Hell. This woman could sing the phone book and make it sound great. If you can’t get laid with Norah Jones on the stereo, you can’t get laid… More to come on this as the LP comes out….This song is all piano and brilliant vocal. It’s the closest thing she’s done to her first album in a long time. I think this is a great return to her early sound. I will admit, I’ve loved everything she’s done, experimentally and other wise…. Check out the Little Willies, her great, country side project.

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What to think about Van Morrison…We’d all love to think he’s got another “Moondance” or even a “Tupelo Honey” left in him, but who knows. He hit a hot streak starting with the “Down The Road” album and kept it going through “Magic Time.” Then he phoned it in with “Keep It Simple.” He followed up with the fabulous “Astral Weeks: Live At the Hollywood Bowl” which was simply transcendent. Yes, he was revisiting an old album, but the passion of that performance was almost as great as the original LP. His last two albums, oddly named, left me cold… although the duet, “Streets of Arklow” with Mick Hucknell might be one of the greatest duets ever, and it slowly restored my faith…

I have no idea what his new LP “Keep Me Singing” will bring, but for some odd reason, I remain hopeful. The lead single, “Too Late” has me very optimistic. It’s an oddly hopeful, “it’s not too late” mid tempo, train-tempo-chugging tune that I really like. It’s the first Van tune that I thought might signal he’s trying since “Magic Time.” I get it, he did two or three great albums and no one noticed, why try… but it appears he’s coming back with a very strong album. These are the type of albums that B&V were founded on, strong albums in the later careers of great artists…I’m not sure if this will be a great album, but it’s a great first single…

Again, these aren’t great party songs… but if you’re having a night cap and someone is in their underwear, this might just tweak the mood in your favor… and if you’re like me, you can always use that help…

Cheers!