- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Norah Jones
The Fall
Blue Note

The voice of sultry chanteuse Norah Jones is in top form on her new album.

Producer Jacquire King does a wonderful job at the dials, leavening the album’s strong guitar flavor with sophisticated accents. The musicianship is strong, with avant-garde jazz guitarist Marc Ribot coming in for special mention for his atmospheric, almost ambient playing, which sounds at times like a slowed-down version of his typically hyperkinetic style. Yet for all that, “The Fall” is a bit of a disappointment. Not that it’s bad, but it’s more forgettable than a Norah Jones album has any right to be.

The album’s key flaw — and not everyone would agree that it is a flaw — is that determined restraint. The beats act as a drag on the melodic energy of the songs. “Chasing Pirates,” the album’s single, comes off as a bit of blue-eyed disco, with a rhythm-and-guitar riff reminiscent of the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You.” But where the Stones’ song is full of explosive tension, Miss Jones’ song has the emotional power of a pillow fight. On this song and others, she shows she hasn’t solved the problem of how to rock with that whispery bedroom voice.

Deliberate quiet serves her well on “Light as a Feather,” written in collaboration with Ryan Adams. It’s a dark, forbidding song, and there is a touch of menace in Miss Jones’ voice, but the sonorous bowing of a cello does the heavy emotional lifting here. The low, growling rhythm-guitar part on “Young Blood” achieves that same effect, grounding Miss Jones’ evanescent voice.

Miss Jones doesn’t entirely escape her reputation as a torch singer on “The Fall.” The album’s best song, “Back to Manhattan,” is sung in the cabaret idiom. A sweetly plucked guitar and the tapping of a drum are balanced by a sustained synth part and a gently rolling piano. Lyrically, echoes of longing haunt the song’s account of failed interborough romance, as when Miss Jones sings, “I’ll go back to Manhattan as if nothing ever happened/When I cross this bridge, it’ll be as if this don’t exist.”

The track “December,” with the zitherlike trill of a slow-picked acoustic guitar, sounds like bit of midcentury French pop revived and translated. Miss Jones is an expert miniaturist, making her voice the lead instrument in such spare arrangements. She seems lost by comparison on electric tracks, like the downbeat pop of “Even Though,” with its theremin overlays and blasts of distorted guitar.

Still, Miss Jones appears determined not to settle for a gold-plated career as a platinum-selling jazz singer, and some of her recent collaborations have been exciting. Her turn as a guest vocalist on rapper Q-Tip’s “Life Is Better” from 2007 was positively dreamy. Her own songwriting is a bit too constrained right now to show off the scope of her singing talent. Though “The Fall” is eminently listenable, it still comes off as fairly ordinary (if upscale) indie pop.

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