Norah Jones' No. 2: modest in execution

AlbumReview

February 10, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

On stage and on TV, she's the deer in the headlights. It's been almost two years since Norah Jones released her overrated debut, Come Away With Me, a lo-fi collection of adult pop seasoned with jazz and country, and she still seems very uncomfortable with the success it brought her.

Granted, the praise and accolades lavished upon the album, which sold 17 million copies worldwide, surprised folks in and outside the industry. (Norah, who?) And, apparently, the sudden, whirl wind ride up the pop charts and the five Grammys last year unnerved the dark-eyed Texas beauty so much that she reportedly begged Blue Note, her label, to stop promoting the record.

But Jones is a star whether she likes it or not. And, after the monster success of her debut, all eyes are on the 24-year-old singer-pianist and her new album. What does she have to say this time? Does she stretch her music? Is the record any good?

Not much. Sorta. And, uh, not really.

Like its predecessor, Feels Like Home (in stores today) maintains a patch-quilt warmth. The roots of Jones' style -- slow-burning blues, soft rock, twangy country, acoustic jazz -- are more pronounced throughout this time. And she wrote or co-wrote six of the album's 13 songs. (She contributed lyrics and music to three tunes on her debut.) But overall, the record is too choppy -- veering from piano jazz to blues-rock, from alternative country to coffeehouse pop with little cohesion.

Jones' khaki voice -- fine and dependable, works with practically anything -- is more refined this time, a little less girlish than what we heard on "Don't Know Why." But after a few listens, Feels Like Home feels like aural NyQuil: the nighttime, crawling, boring, aching, stuffy head, low pulse to feel nothing music.

Sometimes, we prefer colorless and unobtrusive albums -- just a little something to put on and set the mood. No chills. No raised hairs. Just something to play during a pretentious dinner party or while napping in a hammock. Norah Jones is guaranteed to keep your party (and your heart rate) pretty low.

She is a talented vocalist with a smoky, seductive quality that haunts you after the song has ended. And her intentions are good. But the executions lack flavor, something that jumps out. Like a cat, Jones' music creeps up on you -- cautious and measured -- then, after a while, it rubs against you. But depending on your taste, you either appreciate the easy, silken style or it freaks you out.

"I never, ever thought the music I made would become popular music," Jones said as she accepted a Grammy last February.

Her brand of mediocre, anti-bombast pop soothed millions after 9/11. And it gave a diverse range of music lovers something more wholesome, more nuanced. Jones was a cooling balm for those scorched by the overheated hits of her peers: Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. But it wouldn't hurt if the crooner let her guard down a little: become a little playful, highlight more of her sparkling piano, add a little more spice and cohesion to her approach.

Produced by Jones and Arif Mardin, Feels Like Home contains a few gems nonetheless. "What Am I to You?" sounds like a forgotten track that could have been on Dusty Springfield's Dusty in Memphis. And "The Prettiest Thing" is a moody ballad that evokes a soft rainfall on an autumn evening. Jones' subtle voice and piano settle on you, seeping into the skin; it feels good.

But too much of it lulls you into a sweet gray dream.

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