Here’s a typical conversation I had this week:
Me: “I’m reviewing Norah Jones this week.”
Random Friend: “My mom likes Norah Jones.”
It doesn’t sound much like an insult, because there are no harsh words or explicit judgments passed. Instead, rather underhandedly, people place themselves above an artist by defining them as an entity that sees heavy rotation in their mother’s limited CD collection, the collection of a woman who, while loved and respected, surely has inferior taste in music. It’s with Jones’ newest release, …Featuring Norah Jones, a compilation album of her best collaborations, that this concept has become abundantly clear to me.
I’m totally one of the people who says that my mom likes Norah Jones. I should also admit that I don’t know if it’s entirely true that my mother, Christine Elizabeth Gordon of Glendale, Arizona, likes Norah Jones. She does, however, love Pink, Train, Johnny Mathis, and several Celine Dion songs, so excuse me for extrapolating. Telling people your mom likes album X is just a way of saying you don’t want anything to do with it, be it praising the record or tearing it to pieces.
There are several songs on the LP where that mood strikes me rather quickly. The Little Willies, a country band Jones formed in 2003, and their song “Love Me” sticks out like a sore thumb of the perfectly suitable variety. Jones’ voice is lonesome and melancholy, full of country-fried twang and depression while still maintaining the jazzy influence she’s known for. Instrumentally, they hit all the right chords, and I get the feeling that they’re vastly talented. I even connect with the emotion and the song’s sentiment, begging and pleading to be loved in that dry, self-deprecating kind of way. I grasp it all in its entirety, and yet I feel as if I’d enjoy something else more. It’s as if the track’s influences and scope and the gentle nature of it all don’t quite speak to me or others of my generation who have spent our entire lives being pummeled by thousands of pop songs. The album feels tailored to another life, to sensibilities beyond my own. It’s as if, gasp, my mother would like Norah Jones.
And I thought to myself, perhaps it’s all about finding the right tracks. Perhaps I’d enjoy this effort more if I could find something more my style, something my generation readily accepts.
Jones masterfully picked the collaborations that make up this 18-track album. From Dolly Parton to M. Ward, from Sean Bones to Belle & Sebastian, everyone that makes vaguely rootsy music rooted deeply in the past and in a sense of quiet solitude makes an appearance. However, the more interesting choices are the more experimental inclusions. Hip-hop rears its mug on OutKast’s “Take Off Your Cool” and Q-Tip’s “Life Is Better”. In the end, though, both are forgettable. Undoubtedly, it’s part of the culture; in a genre where female vocalists appear in literally every song, the understated, subtly haunting vocal style of Jones is outshined by memories of more forceful, goddess-like divas with pipes of gold. Even on a rock track like ”The Best Part” by El Madmo, a rock band Jones plays guitar in as “Maddie”, it’s clear that Jones’ default setting hovers around that new jazz sound one could easily confuse with a dozen others.
It’s tracks like the duets with Foo Fighters and Ryan Adams (“Virginia Moon” and “Dear John”, respectively) that actually make me think there’s hope for a beautiful love affair between my ears and Jones’ songs. The former is a kind of musical gumbo made up of bits of jazz and folk and rock and is strikingly eerie in its simplicity and melding of Dave Grohl and Jones’ voices. On the other hand, the latter sounds as if Adams himself had to drag Jones into the studio to make this song, which bubbles with a kind of darker energy, more hurt and loneliness than Jones musters on the rest of the album.
Both Foo Fighters and Ryan Adams are part of my generation and, unlike hip-hop, are slightly connected to Jones’ style of music. But in the end, I’d like to think these tracks are successful because they do something the rest of the album, not to mention a lot of the so-called “mom albums,” fails to do: shine with something less conventional but not completely out of the wheel well, discrediting a lot of preconceived notions about what defines a Norah Jones song. Like if mom added mushrooms to her meatloaf.