- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

Norah Jones

Feels Like Home

Blue Note Records

How do you follow up an album that sold 17 million copies worldwide, blanked Bruce Springsteen at the Grammys and almost single-handedly rejuvenated the market for adult music?

Norah Jones’ answer is: Easily. Nothing to it. Just make another album and act as if nothing happened.

Other than moving from her humble Brooklyn apartment — thank you, New York Post, for publishing her address — into a tony East Village duplex, the rolling-in-cash 24-year-old singer-pianist has done little to alter the chemistry of “Come Away With Me.”

Renowned producer Arif Mardin is back, as are guitarists Adam Levy and Kevin Breit and bassist-boyfriend Lee Alexander, who shoulders the greatest share of the songwriting here. “Don’t Know Why” scribe and guitarist Jesse Harris turns up again, too, though in a more marginal role. (He plays acoustic on a couple of tunes.)

“Feels Like Home” is so casual in atmosphere, so easygoing and unhurried, you would think the phenomenon that was Miss Jones’ debut album was just a dream. Steeped in cocktail piano and vocal jazz, Miss Jones had been trending country with “Come Away With Me.”

“Home” edges even further in that direction, making the adjustment feel like a natural progression. Sure, it may end with a tune from jazz legend Duke Ellington, “Melancholia,” to which Miss Jones added her own lyrics and which she refashioned as “Don’t Miss You at All.” Yet she’s clearly more interested in Lucinda Williams than Billie Holiday these days.

She duets with a giggly Dolly Parton on the manure-kickin’ “Creepin’ In” and strokes a Wurlitzer electric piano instead of her trusty Yamaha acoustic for a few tracks.

Accompanied by drummer Levon Helm and organist Garth Hudson of the Band on “What Am I to You?” Miss Jones’ liquid alto sounds perfect next to Tony Scherr’s gritty slide guitar. On “In the Morning,” penned by Mr. Levy, she nails the bluesy purr of Dusty Springfield as Sheryl Crow could only wish.

Thus is “Home” worthy of its billing; this is a gal who, though born in New York City, was raised in Texas. “Home” takes Norah Jones out of the National Public Radio fern bar and books her in the honky-tonk, with marvelous results.

Don’t misunderstand: This isn’t a country album, by any stretch. The quiet minimalism Mr. Mardin imposed on “Come Away With Me” still rules over “Home.”

Percussion is most often kept to the whisper of a brushed snare; on “Those Sweet Words,” Andrew Borger plays nothing more than a box. Miss Jones herself sings with astonishing restraint, too.

A thought experiment about her playing: If you heard nothing but her piano, do you think you could tell it was Norah Jones? I think so. That says as much about her admixture of influences as it does about the technique with which she picks out the notes. Astonishingly for someone so young, she has assimilated the slip-note style of Nashville pianist Floyd Cramer — those jumbled chromatic triplets — and made them her own.

The one shortcoming that has dogged Miss Jones, despite her originality as a stylist, is her lack of original songs. “Home” won’t quash the criticism. Only one song is credited solely to Miss Jones; the other five that bear her name usually have Mr. Alexander peering over their shoulders.

Still, it’s probably wise that she’s approaching songwriting at a gentle pace. Better a slow improvement than an album’s worth of subpar originals just to prove a point. It’s not as if she doesn’t have a rich menu of compositions from what she calls her Handsome Band.

Everyone, from Mr. Borger to backup singer Daru Oda, contributes at least one song, courtesy of the egalitarian Miss Jones. (They all stand to make serious money if “Home” sells anywhere close to “Come Away With Me.”)

Given the kaleidoscope of songwriters — there also are covers of Tom Waits and fellow Texan Townes Van Zandt — “Home,” themewise, is surprisingly cohesive. The 13 songs are mostly about relationships, from an angle of apprehension (“Above Ground,” “Toes”) and nostalgia (“The Prettiest Thing”).

On “Sunrise,” a couple wake up midafternoon, apparently struggling with the pace of nocturnal, probably musical, jobs. The turbulent romance of working city musicians is intimated again on “Those Sweet Words”: “I know I saw you singing / But my ears won’t stop ringing / Long enough to hear / Those sweet words / What did you say?” Miss Jones croons.

The one lyrical standout is Mr. Breit’s evocative “Humble Me,” the struggle of a single mother set to the steely sound of a resonator guitar, an instrument he plays throughout the album to wonderful effect.

As much of a group effort as “Home” is, Miss Jones owns the album, as she should. Ultimately, she’ll rise or fall on her own merits, not Lee Alexander’s or Arif Mardin’s.

On “Feels Like Home,” we see a blossoming young singer-songwriter not yet at the peak of her powers but traveling in the right direction — up.

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