- The Washington Times - Monday, January 29, 2007

Norah Jones

Not Too Late

Blue Note Records

Norah Jones wears fame like J.R.R. Tolkein’s dangerously powerful One Ring: She knows it might ruin her.

The unassuming pianist with the 700-thread-count voice is in the can’t-please-‘em position Fleetwood Mac found itself in in the late ‘70s, when “Tusk” failed to match the astronomic sales of the blockbuster “Rumours”: Miss Jones’ last album, “Feels Like Home,” the follow-up to the blockbuster “Come Away with Me,” sold “only” 4 million copies.

If anything, “Not Too Late” is even more hotly anticipated than “Home,” so sizing up “Not Too Late” on its own terms — as simply the third album from a talented, 27-year-old artist — is thus almost impossible. It’s a fine album in many ways, not the least of which is the frugal, intimate production of Miss Jones’ boyfriend-bassist Lee Alexander, who has taken over knob-spinning duties from the late Arif Mardin. Yet there’s something frustratingly elusive about it.

Miss Jones is not unlike her famous corporate patron, Starbucks Coffee, which doesn’t sell coffee so much as ambience. The 13 songs here — all written or co-written by Miss Jones, her most prolific outing yet — feel as if they’ve each been written several times over, which is simultaneously the most appealing and annoying thing about them.

The lead single, “Thinking About You,” sounds like a dozen different Memphis soul classics, from the unhurried snap of the snare drum and the gentle jabs of brass to the comfy groove Miss Jones creates with her Wurlitzer piano.

Acoustic guitarist Jesse Harris plucks the first notes of the album with “Wish I Could.” The song is beautifully, sparely arranged, with Miss Jones slathering falsetto harmonies on top of a sedate melody, while a pizzicato cello drones captivatingly underneath. As I said, beautiful — but then you realize the cowboy chord progression is straight out of Folk/Pop 101. You half expect Mark Farner to walk in with “I’m Your Captain.”

“Sinkin’ Soon” nearly fools you into thinking Miss Jones is about to take a sharp left turn. Mr. Harris begins on “guitjo” (a guitar-banjo hybrid), and drummer Andy Borger and Mr. Alexander join in with a lumbering, womp-womp New Orleans rhythm by way of a less demented Tom Waits. In terms of Miss Jones’ mellow norm, the song counts as a departure, one that shows some range in addition to great taste.

But the heightened effect is drowned out quickly by “The Sun Doesn’t Like You,” another perfectly likable rustic shuffle.

Miss Jones steps in and out of character for the balance of the album; occasionally, she pricks you with something relatively up-tempo (such as the countrified “Be My Somebody”) or a profound downer of lyric, as on this line from “Not My Friend”: “Help me breathe/Help me believe/You seem relieved that I am sad.” And on the ornery cocktail-hour tune, “My Dear Country,” Miss Jones expresses an unlikely (for her) emotion — hate — and wonders aloud whether President Bush is “deranged.”

“I’ve seen people try to change, and I know it isn’t easy,” Miss Jones sings on the album’s lullaby title track.

Ain’t that the truth.

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