Norah Jones - ...Featuring (Advance Review) (2010)

Norah Jones
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Norah Jones came out of nowhere in 2002 as the savior of adult music, immediately pigeonholed by critics as a soft-jazz chanteuse and nearly as quickly cloned by record companies trying to recreate her incredible success with smooth sound-alikes. Jones has spent the years since then trying hard to explain to the world through her subsequent music that she's waaaay more than a pretty face who could kill a jazzy pop tune like "Don't Know Why."  The fact is, behind that beautifully viscous voice, Jones has a talent and a virtuousity that goes beyond simply making songs for Starbucks moments.  And her enjoyable but somewhat disjointed new duets compilation, ...Featuring, may finally get the point across.

Norah Jones came out of nowhere in 2002 as the savior of adult music, immediately pigeonholed by critics as a soft-jazz chanteuse and nearly as quickly cloned by record companies trying to recreate her incredible success with smooth sound-alikes. Jones has spent the years since then trying hard to explain to the world through her subsequent music that she's waaaay more than a pretty face who could kill a jazzy pop tune like "Don't Know Why."  The fact is, behind that beautifully viscous voice, Jones has a talent and a virtuousity that goes beyond simply making songs for Starbucks moments.  And her enjoyable but somewhat disjointed new duets compilation, ...Featuring, may finally get the point across.

While Jones has been considered a light jazz artist (a la Diana Krall) by many, she has spent her career unfaithful to that label, moving from jazz to folk to alternative rock and especially to country -- and unusual hybrids of those styles. And ...Featuring has them all, sometimes sequenced in relatively cohesive bunches, but on the whole with wild swings that make it difficult to comprehend this is one artist and one album. There is, of course, a certain cynicism in seeing ...Featuring, which gathers a decade's worth of odds and ends, released just in time for the holiday shopping season; but a complete listen to the disc shows this is not a slapped together Christmas shopping grab, but rather an interesting collection of diverse tracks and sounds that has real value on its own and should have appeal beyond Jones' loyal fanbase.

Though the stated theme of ...Featuring is that it is an album of duets, in reality it is at least two albums at once: one half Jones' numerous side sessions with friends, and the other half Jones as a hired singing gun in high profile projects.  The opening cut, the wonderful "Love Me," performed with Jones' frequent band the Little Willies, immediately shows where the real joy in this album lies.  On it, Jones is at once sexy, intimate and absolutely legitimate as a 50s-style Southern crooner, and it makes you wish she and the Willies would cut an entire album together.  On these kinds of side excursions with friends that are sprinkled throughout ...Featuring, Jones  is clearly having fun and stretching herself comfortably into areas she loves -- and the results are the disc's high points.  Her cover of Johnny Cash's "Bull Rider" (with Sasha Dobson) is terrific and her three part harmonies with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings on the pure country "Loretta" make it a highlight.  But nearly as good are her work with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on the acoustic "Ruler of My Heart" and her moody, almost emo piece with Daru Oda called "The Best Part."  Finally, her one-take with Ryan Adams on the sad ballad, "Dear John," has a live, rough feel that brings the pathos of the song to life.

Fortunately, even the more contrived high profile duets on ...Featuring generally work.  Songs with the Foo Fighters and Belle & Sebastian are predictably enjoyable, and could have fit well on last year's The Fall.  "Baby It's Cold Outside" has been, to put it mildly, overdone; but Jones and Willie Nelson bring a certain charm to it that works surprisingly well. And even retread duets with Ray Charles, Herbie Hancock and Dolly Parton from prior albums are more than simply filler.  The only truly unsuccessful forays here are Jones' escursion into hip hop, as cuts with rappers Q-Tip and Talib Kweli not only aren't great on their own, they provide an unusually sharp stylistic detour that takes away from whatever cohesion could otherwise be formulated in this disc.

Maybe because of her quick ascent and natural beauty, Norah Jones has spent her career being both narrowly defined and underestimated by many.  And while ...Featuring is at times frustratingly disjointed, it certainly serves to show Jones' varied interests and, more importantly, her formidable vocal talent in a variety of styles of music.  It's a bit heavy at 18 songs, but at least a dozen are gems and provide a wonderful look at Norah Jones through the company she keeps.  And she more than survives the inspection; she comes off as perhaps both more human and more impressive through this lens of her past side work, and in the process sets the stage for an even more adventurous future.  Recommended.

By Chris Rizik

 
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