New Norah Jones CD feels like gold
February 5, 2004
It’s good times coming up for those who favor the female voice. Two of the finest, sweetest woman singers are going to be displaying their talents in the week ahead. And just in time for Valentine’s Day.
Emmylou Harris is performing, in a duo with singer-guitarist Buddy Miller, at the Wheeler Opera House next Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 14-15. And on Tuesday, Feb. 10, comes on the most anticipated CDs of this young millennium, as Norah Jones releases “Feels Like Home,” the follow-up to her multi-Grammy-winning, multimillion-selling debut, “Come Away with Me.”
In addition, Bering Strait, the Nashville-by-way-of-Russia country band playing at the Wheeler Opera House Monday, Feb. 9, is led by two talented female singers, Natasha Borzilova and Lydia Salnikova.
Following are reviews of several recent releases by female singers.
Norah Jones, “Feels Like Home”
produced by Arif Mardin and Jones (Blue Note)
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When her debut CD “Come Away with Me” began its improbable rise to music history ” 8 million copies sold in the United States, and another 9 million outside the country ” Jones had an improbable reaction: She pulled back. She cut down on interviews and refused to make another video. According to a story in The New York Times Magazine, Jones even asked her record label, “How can we stop it?” when sales reached two million.
On “Feels Like Home,” which Jones co-produced with “Come Away with Me” producer Arif Mardin, you can hear Jones still in pull-back mode. It is a gorgeous, sultry retreat. “Feels Like Home” is even quieter and wispier than her subtle debut. When Jones sings “Humble Me,” a hushed voice over slight guitar, it is practically a celebration of humility. In the deliberate “Above Ground,” when Jones sings “I think I’m a little shy,” the words almost disappear; Jones even shies away from announcing how little she craves attention. Jones does quiet as well as anyone. The sparse instrumentation, slow paces and whispers allow all the honey tones and come-hither invitations to settle in.
The only thing that does get cranked up on “Feels Like Home” is the twang factor. “Come Away with Me” had hints of country. There was the Hank Williams cover, and Jones’ many-layered voice revealed her Texas upbringing as much as her love of jazz. Here she further emphasizes the country angle. In Lee Alexander’s bass, the acoustic guitars of Jesse Harris and Kevin Breit, the longing lilt in Jones’ singing, and the cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Be Here to Love Me” ” with accordion by Garth Hudson of The Band ” one hears the Texas country-folk strain. And in case that influence is too subtle, the point gets hammered home in “Creepin’ In,” a lively duet with Dolly Parton, of all people.
Jones occasionally said that she didn’t want to be confined by the success and sound of “Come Away with Me.” She hinted that there would be surprises to come. “Feels Like Home” is not that big surprise, Jones takes some steps forward. She writes more of the material than she did on her debut, and steps up as co-producer. But while it is not a leap ahead, it shows that Jones is no flash-in-the-pan. With “Feels Like Home,” she has captured lightning once again.
Ani DiFranco, “Educated Guess”
The uncommonly prolific Ani DiFranco is back yet again. This time, she is flying solo. DiFranco does all the playing, singing, songwriting, recording and mixing on “Educated Guess”; she even did the drawings for the large booklet of lyrics, poems and notes.
Less is more here, but only by a tiny measure. Ditching the band and guest musicians places the entire focus on DiFranco’s guitar-playing, singing and writing, all of which have increasingly become acquired tastes. Going solo hasn’t altered the path DiFranco has been on over the last bunch of years. On “Educated Guess,” she deconstructs standard songwriting structure in favor of primal, stream-of-consciousness looseness.
The solo approach does seem to allow DiFranco to indulge in an interior narrative. She has never been shy about revealing feelings, but here the emphasis on the first-person is turned up. Even DiFranco seems to tire of this self-focus: “Since when did this me me me/become the be all and end all of me?” she asks on “Origami.”
Even when she turns her attention to politics on “Grand Canyon” ” “I love my country / by which I mean I am indebted joyfully / to all the people throughout its history / who have fought the government to make right” ” she does so in a spoken word piece that draws more attention toher.
On “Educated Guess,” DiFranco is, as ever, unique and bold. But I’m still waiting for her to write songs I can get my ears around, which puts me about eight years behind her.
Mindy Smith, “One Moment More”
produced by Steve Buckingham and Smith (Vanguard)
Mindy Smith was raised on Long Island by a musical family, But not until 1991, when she moved to Tennessee, did she get turned on to the sounds of Appalachia. The Southern strains inspired her to learn guitar and write songs.
Smith arrives with a splash, and not least of all because her version of “Jolene” was the first single track off last year’s star-studded tribute to Dolly Parton, “Just Because I’m a Woman.” “One Moment More” hardly sounds like the debut album it is. Apart from “Jolene,” included here as an unlisted bonus track, Smith wrote all of the songs. The tunes, a mix of country, rock and pop, lean toward the dark and desperate, with the singer struggling against bad love, bad times and occasionally overcoming them.
In addition to the accomplished songwriting, “One Moment More” is expertly produced, in the way you’d expect from a more seasoned musician. Smith has help in this department from co-producer Buckingham, a veteran who has worked with Mary Chapin Carpenter, the Chieftains and (no surprise) Parton, and such experienced hands as guitarist Bryan Sutton and keyboardist Matt Rollings. In a way, the CD makes you feel as if you’ve missed something, namely, Smith’s development. “One Moment More” is a good listen, but generic. Smith probably would have learned more from the rough edges that come with most artists’ early albums.
Lizz Wright, “Salt”
produced by Tommy LiPuma, Brian Blade and Jon Cowherd (Verve)
On her debut CD, “Salt,” vocalist Lizz Wright shows equal amounts of accomplishment and room to grow. The Georgia native has a round, earthy voice that reflects her training in both jazz and the church. She writes many of her own songs, and she’s versatile, trying out gospel, neo-soul and Broadway as well as straight-up jazz.
But “Salt,” which features such top players as drummer Brian Blade and keyboardist Jon Cowherd, finds Wright floating above the songs rather than digging into them. The element of emotional connection, crucial to this kind of music, is lacking.
Cassandra Wilson, “Glamoured”
produced by Fabrizio Sotti (Blue Note)
Everything Lizz Wright doesn’t have yet, Cassandra Wilson has in spades. Mostly, Wilson has the ability to get into the heart of a song and reinvent it as her own. That allows her to reinterpret any kind of song. Here, she takes on Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” Sting’s “Fragile,” and Muddy Waters’ “Honey Bee.” All of them ” plus the handful of originals ” get that rhythm-heavy Wilson touch, which gives “Glamoured” a consistent flow.