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Monday, Jan. 11, 2010

Norah Jones

The Fall (Blue Note)

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If sultry songstress Norah Jones has proven exceptional at one thing, it’s projecting her Blue Note sensibilities into an all-ages, easy-to-digest formula. Yet on 2007’s Not TooLate, and here again, she seems as determined to shed her perfect-present-for-mom, Starbucks stigma as she does the unnamed ex who haunts The Fall.

Jones even goes so far as to wrangle Modest Mouse and Kings of Leon producer Jacquire King. And from the rubbery bass, echoey keys and pulsing beat of opener and single “Chasing Pirates,” there’s definitely a new touch of indie edge. But for all the warbly guitars and moody soundscapes, she, thankfully, never really gets away from herself: Like escaping Brooklyn only to arrive one borough over in “Back to Manhattan,” Jones remains as much akin to a New York City coffeehouse as ever.

As before, the tempo holds at half-throttle, the tone remains at lonely resignation and the requisite tears-in-your-dorm balladry appears (“December”). But along with the old-jeans songwriting M.O., there is a wisdom beyond her 30 years that makes Jones more than just a middle-of-the-road Grammy hoarder that we can all agree on. Even when she goes all Tom Waits on the bare-bones stomper “It’s Gonna Be,” the sound is of an artist assuredly within her own skin.

Sure, such a gentle cycle of jazz, country and fem-folk—as demure as the singer’s appearance—threatens to be waiting-room-level over the course of a full album. But her career continues to raise an arresting, albeit un-hip, critical question: Can uber-mellow, Top-40, background music work as all that and still be worthwhile, thoughtful and well crafted? Jones again answers in the affirmative.

Norah Jones performs March 19 at the Riverside Theater.