Urban indie hipsters -- even, ahem, aging ones - are not supposed to care much about Norah Jones, but the fact is that a lot of them do, and those that don't really should. Whatever edginess you may think is lacking from her output thus far, there's no denying her immense talent and charm, she's the child of musical royalty, she acknowledges some true greats (The Band, Tom Waits, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams) as her chief influences, she disguises herself and plays in an East Village punk band, and yes, she's no slouch in the looks department either.
NoJo's new record, Not Too Late, has been touted pretty prominently as the first on which she wrote or co-wrote every song, and it does represent something of a departure from the easy approachability and slick veneer of her first two records. The songs, while melodic and "pretty" as always, are more thoughtful, personal and pointed, they contain some subtle topicality and protest, the production is more organic (much of the record was recorded in her New York apartment with bassist/beau Lee Alexander), and the listener has to work just a little bit harder to appreciate fully what she's trying to convey. It is, once again, a very nice listen, and while not exactly adventurous, is plainly more a record that Norah was moved to make, and even pour herself into, than either of her first two outings. Hopefully, this marks the beginning of a trend. I'd love to see her step even further out on the wire next time, and emulate her heroes a little more. If anyone has the commercial clout to do that these days, it's Norah Jones.
But amidst all the hype surrounding the release of the new record, including a series of performances broadcast in the UK and Europe a few weeks back, the thing that has impressed me the most is a new version of one of Norah's oldest and biggest hits, "Come Away With Me," that she now plays on guitar instead of piano, and with only the sparsest of accompaniment from her crack band. The fact that her guitar playing is pretty rudimentary at this point actually gives this new rendition of the song a fragility and vulnerability that I never heard in the original. It's less an assured invitation to a lover now, more a humble plea. I like it a lot more that way.
MP3: Norah Jones - "Come Away With Me" (live at Studio 104, Maison de Radio-France, Paris, January 20, 2007)
MP3: Norah Jones - "Wish I Could" from Not Too Late