“I sing my songs, I hope someone sings along…” – Norah Jones, “I’m Alive”
When I was just beginning my rock and roll journey as a middle-teenager, maybe all of thirteen years old, it was sort of an unwritten rule that you didn’t buy music that didn’t “rock.” It was all Zeppelin, Sabbath, Rush and Van Halen back then. Anything outside of that was considered weak. It was all about the power and majesty of the guitar solo. Guys my age wouldn’t even admit to liking Elton John back then because he played piano. You didn’t want to appear “soft” or a worse fate, to be branded as an admitted pop music fan. It was all about street “cred” back then. And sadly, I don’t know if it was some sort of nascent sexism but as a young teenage boy you generally didn’t buy music by women artists.
By the 70s there were plenty of cool women artists out there. Janis certainly was cool but other than “Mercedes Benz” you didn’t hear much of her on the radio, which was odd because you heard plenty of Hendrix and Doors from that same era on rock stations. Pat Benetar had some credibility in the rock and roll circles. I bought one of her albums at the mall but I had to wear a fake mustache and glasses to feel comfortable doing so. Fleetwood Mac was cool and by extension Stevie Nicks won us over with Bella Donna. Of course with Stevie there may have been more… visceral reasons we were drawn to her, one can never tell about teenage boys. Of course in middle America you never heard of Patti Smith or the Runaways… well, not when you were in high school at least. Nobody knew what to make of Blondie.
It wasn’t until college that any of us had the confidence to walk into the record store and come out with Horses or a Joni Mitchell album. Naturally, we were all still buying Stevie Nicks albums… I think as you grow from, literally, boys to men you just become more confident in who you are and what you like. As a friend once said to me, “Fuck ’em.” From college I’ve branched out in all sorts of different directions and to different artists. I’ve even discovered (and really like) jazz. I’m not sure what 13 year old me would say about my music collection these days… I think jazz would have made my 13-year old head explode. If I know my teenage self, I’d probably call me a lurid name. I was not a nice kid.
As many long time readers here now know, I am past that teen-machismo-angst and openly embrace a lot of music and artists, including (yes, 13-year old me) women (Women In Rock: My Search For Female Singers Leads to the Rock Chick’s Top 10). Almost from the earliest days of B&V I’ve been on the record as a Norah Jones fan. Her voice is, in my opinion, an all time great. She’s up there with Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday or Joni Mitchell in my opinion. One of our earliest pieces was to laud her great 2016 LP Day Breaks, LP Review: Norah Jones’ “Day Breaks,” The Piano Strikes Back!. I was thrilled to see last Friday her new album was out, Pick Me Up Off The Floor.
I’ve often wondered what it would be like to have a career like Norah Jones? Her first album was an immediate classic and sold 11 million copies in the U.S. alone… I think it sold over 27 million copies world wide (per Wikipedia). Many established bands struggle with success like that (Artists Who Changed Their Music to Escape Fame). The massive success of Hotel California or Rumours fundamentally knocked the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac off their trajectories. It’s hard to be that big. But for Norah, it was on her first album! One could argue the same thing happened to Guns N Roses, and that didn’t turn out exactly great. Of course, Norah was a solo artist vs a band with all the egos that entails.
Norah has responded by simply putting out a string of superb albums. Instead of trying to please people she clearly took the momentous early success for what it was: Freedom. She’s often experimented and has taken her music in different directions. She’s collaborated with a lot of different artists and really done it her way. But her way ended up being a perfect course for her. She branched out and changed to a more “pop” sound on The Fall. From there, she really expanded upon that pop direction on the Danger Mouse produced …Little Broken Hearts. She’s formed a country-rock side project with other liked minded musicians called the Little Willies (apparently named for Willie Nelson, in case you’re wondering). I especially loved her duets album of Everly Brothers’ covers with Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day fame, Foreverly. Well, in truth I’ve followed her through all the twists and turns. In the middle of it all is that spectacular voice.
After all of that, in 2016 she released the aforementioned Day Breaks. That album was a return to the rootsy, jazz-based, piano driven sound of her first couple of albums. After the tour for that album I read that Norah was going to collaborate with other artists and just put out singles. Those were finally collected on the EP, Begin Again (EP Review: Back On The Mellow End With Norah Jones’ New ‘Begin Again’). I loved that she was taking a more spontaneous approach, releasing singles as she recorded them. I will say the EP left me wanting a whole album. Apparently during those sessions there were a number of songs that were “left over,” or perhaps, “left on the floor,” so to speak. Norah has collected those songs and fashioned another in a string of superb albums.
I put this album on the first time with the Rock Chick. I wanted her to hear it with me. She does not share my devotion to Norah, although she likes her. This music and this album is a return to that early jazz-based sound from Come Away With Me that Norah returned to so successfully on Day Breaks. The music on this album transports me. I feel like its late at night and I’m on an avenue, perhaps in Paris. This music could be coming out of a cafe where cigarette smoke still fills the air and the ashtrays crowd the tables with empty glasses and bottles. There’s no doubt I’d loosen my tie while listening. There’s an immediate sensual aspect to Norah’s music on this album.
The album starts off with a trio of sexy tracks. “How I Weep” starts slowly but its simple vocals, piano, strings arrangement immediately draws me in. “Flame Twin” is a an aptly named torch song with the vocals and piano underscored with an organ. I love the lyrics, “I’m your twin, I’m on fire, come put me out…” Oh indeed! “Hurts To Be Alone” just chugs along keeping the momentum up.
The heart of the album, for me, was the two tracks in the middle, “This Life” and “To Live.” When she sings “This life as we know it is over,” one has to wonder if she’s talking about a break-up or society at large. “Heartbroken, Day After” has a nice pedal steel and sounds like something a country star could have done or perhaps the Little Willies. “Say No More” has a subtle horn section and I completely relate to her lyrics when she sings, “Maybe I’m deranged.” “Were You Watching” is another stand out track with a haunting violin weaving in and out of the piano/vocals. Another stand out is “Stumble On My Way” which could have fit right in on Come Away With Me. Jeff Tweedy collaborated with her on the acoustic strummer “I’m Alive.” A little subtle electric guitar mixes in perfectly on that track.
There’s so much to like on this album. I heard Tom Petty say once the reason the Heartbreakers and he weren’t “bigger” was because they had such a high quality and consistency on the albums they put out. He said people might have taken them for granted somewhat. He wasn’t bitter, just trying to explain his career. I wonder sometimes if people are taking Norah Jones and the high quality of her music for granted. Don’t be like 13-year old me and do that – Pick Me Up Off The Floor is a great album that everyone should hear. It’s sitting on the couch with someone and a tumbler of whiskey good…