Norah Jones

Come Away With Me

(Blue Note)

Norah Jones’s new recording, Come Away With Me, begins seductively enough: a warm acoustic bass line nestles under a gently twanging guitar, then a high female voice with a slight drawl croons, “I waited till I saw the sun / Don’t know why I didn’t come.”

That’s a damned good hook: the music put visions of back porches, dusty roads, and big, big sunsets in my mind while the lyrics built a lament that tugged at my heartstrings, and the CD wasn’t half a minute along. The song, “Don’t Know Why,” leads off one of the more talked-about releases of the season: Rolling Stone picked Jones as one of ten artists to watch this year, and the New York Times Magazine expended 1,000 words comparing her to the likes of Nina Simone and Sarah Vaughan. Yet the recording is as noteworthy for what it isn’t as for what it is. It’s not loud, chaotic, or even particularly passionate–it’s just 14 intimately rendered songs about love and loss with a focus on musicianship. That’s all well and good, but it’s also firmly middle-of-the-road, and when, you might wonder, did that become the new edge?

Blame it on extremity, which in some genres has been working on a bad name for a while now and in others has simply fallen out of vogue. Most of the anger expressed in hip-hop and rap metal these days seems to be theatrical; the hard beats that propelled hip-hop into the mainstream have been replaced by exotic rhythms (“Get Ur Freak On”) or virtuosic turntabling. Drum ‘n’ bass has retreated from the wild sounds of the Breakbeat Era into the chilly, laid-back styles of Reid Speed and DB.

These days all sectors of an increasingly fragmented music community are busy investigating the possibilities of texture. Outside the mainstream it’s coming from downtempo stylists like Tosca and Thievery Corporation, rock acts like Her Space Holiday and Tristeza, and ambient techno groups like Boards of Canada. In the Top 40, the trend is manifest in a buffet of aural comfort food, most prominently Alicia Keys and India.Arie, both of whom write palatable, melodic songs and act a good bit more girl-next-door than, say, Gwen Stefani.

Jones’s label, the mainstream jazz institution Blue Note, undoubtedly hopes to win over some of “natural” R & B’s relatively upscale constituency–not to mention the demographic that sent the O Brother, Where Art Thou? sound track up the charts. Jones has in her favor that down-home charm everyone suddenly finds so charming, plus a winning back story of her own. The 22-year-old Dallas native has exotic good looks, thanks in part to her absentee father, Indian sitar legend Ravi Shankar. Under her mother’s watch, she took up piano and voice and won several national awards while at Booker T. Washington High School–the same arts high school that Erykah Badu and Roy Hargrove attended.

Jones also won a scholarship to the famed jazz program at the University of North Texas, but she went to New York the summer after her sophomore year and never left. After a bit of gigging around Manhattan, she fell in with a singer-songwriter crowd and began to hone her distinctive blend of jazz and country; she got signed and made her debut singing on two tracks on guitarist Charlie Hunter’s Songs From the Analog Playground (Blue Note). Hunter and Jones collaborated on a slow, countrified reading of Bryan Ferry’s “More Than This” and turned Nick Drake’s “Day Is Done” into a noirish minor-key blues.

Against those contributions, Come Away With Me falls short. Jones has a captivating voice, with an age-appropriate expectant air but also a touch of world-weariness. There are only three songs on the album worthy of it: “Don’t Know Why,” by her regular guitarist, Jesse Harris, “Feeling the Same Way,” by her bassist, Lee Alexander, and a cover of Hank Williams’s “Cold Cold Heart.” The rest of the recording, mostly originals by her bandmates, feels too meticulous and fussy. The songs aren’t necessarily the problem: the label originally had Jones record with producer Craig Street, who helped craft the distinctive sounds of Cassandra Wilson, Holly Cole, K.D. Lang, and Meshell Ndegeocello; given Street’s work with Wilson’s innovative Delta-jazz hybrid in particular, he would seem a natural choice to help Jones and her band develop their conception into an idiosyncratic sound. But the label rejected most of his work and brought in Arif Mardin, a producer and arranger whose lengthy resume includes work with Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, and Chaka Khan.

Harris’s wistful “Shoot the Moon” exemplifies the problems with Mardin’s production. Jones’s voice and piano playing capture the mood well, but the bass is far too prominent in the mix, and ace drummer Brian Blade’s percussion is annoyingly simple. During the melancholy chorus, Sam Yahel’s organ trails Jones’s voice from a distance that makes it sound as if he were in the next room. It’s hard to imagine a group of jazz musicians that would choose to dumb down their roles this way–but then, as Jones admitted in the Los Angeles Times, this is not a jazz record. The track and several others sound digitally manipulated, and it destroys the campfire coziness of Jones’s baseline sound.

Since it’s home to some of the hoariest cliches in popular music, MOR will never have the cachet of alternative country or progressive trance. But it’s also been the file-under for some of the most compelling music of the last 40 years. From the plaintive lyricism of Carole King to the R & B balladry of Anita Baker, from Steely Dan’s jazz rock to K.D. Lang’s contemporary torch songs, there’s a lot of substantive music there. Jones has the pipes and possibly the musical savvy to create a great recording in this vein, but her debut isn’t it: the big skies and deep emotions that are so alluring in the first 20 seconds are soon dwarfed by the sound of the industry second-guessing itself.

Norah Jones plays Monday, April 15, at Borders on Michigan and Tuesday, April 16, at House of Blues.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joanne Savio.