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(Reprise Records 540939 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/27/2013)
Every so often a pop star who established his or her reputation in some trendy style will try something out of their usual genre, frequently a sound from decades past. There have been a lot of records by big selling artists attempting to do classic Tin Pan Alley standards, with highly mixed results. Perhaps those records are done out of genuine interest in the historic music, or perhaps as a message to the world that the artists doing them are more than just a passing fad. In any case, the results of such projects have run from fairly interesting and tasteful to downright embarrassing.
This week, we have another example of a pop star known for one genre, greatly shifting gears and yielding worthwhile results. Actually it bears the names of two well-known music figures: Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones, and it's called Foreverly.
Billie Joe Armstrong is the charismatic lead vocalist in Green Day, the epitome of the pop punk band, and Norah Jones, of course, is the Grammy-winning vocalist whose debut album put the chanteuse styled vocalist back on the map. As the title suggests, this is a CD of songs associated with rock pioneers the Everly Brothers. So it's not much of a stretch for Ms. Jones, who also has an ongoing side project called the Little Willies, doing old country tunes.
Though both Armstrong and Ms. Jones are given lead credit, the album was initiated by Armstrong, who brought in Ms. Jones for the vocal harmonies. They got to know each other when Armstrong and Green Day played with Stevie Wonder and a bunch of other guests, including Ms. Jones. Armstrong had discovered and very much got into a 1958 Everly Brothers album called Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. He decided he wanted to do a reinterpretation of that album, and he is quoted as saying that his wife suggested Norah Jones as a vocal harmony partner. When Armstrong called her, Ms. Jones accepted, given her long-running interest in such music from that era. In an interview, Armstrong described their first encounter as like a blind date. Ms. Jones said that it took a while to get comfortable in the studio doing the harmonies with Armstrong, but soon felt that it was going to be a good musical experience. They recorded over a five day period, but later returned to the studio to record one more tune and do some tweaks. The arrangements were patterned after the early country sound of the Everly Brothers. It is interesting hearing the vocals by a male/female duo, instead of the famously compatible brother vocals of the Everlys. But Ms. Jones' alto and Armstrong's high tenor were a very good fit for the material.
Both Ms. Jones and Armstrong played multiple instruments on the recording, and they were joined by a band including bassist Tim Lunzel and drummer Dan Reiser, with eclectic studio musician Charlie Burnham on fiddle, mandolin and harmonica, and Jonny Lam on pedal steel.
The CD is designed to emulate the 1950s country-influenced sound of the Everly Brothers, doing music that preceded them, including traditional songs and early country tunes by the likes of Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, and Charlie Monroe, plus one by the Everly Brothers. The arrangements and instrumentation, as well as the recording style of the vocals are strongly evocative of the 1950s country scene. The performances are tasteful and reasonably authentic sounding. Armstrong handles his vocal harmonies very nicely -- sounding light years from his punk work with Green Day.
The CD opens with a traditional song Roving Gambler. Their version has a lot of appeal. Armstrong and Ms. Jones sound as if they are having a good time, while the bluesy harmonica adds an interesting touch. <<>>
Long Time Gone is a Tex Ritter song that Armstrong and Ms. Jones give the old-time country treatment including a kind of classic twangy guitar sound. <<>>
The album has a few sad country songs -- tear-jerkers as they are called. Lightning Express is the story of a little boy on a train going home to an ailing mother. This kind of song runs the risk of getting rather corny, and this version comes close. <<>>
One of the classic country songs on the album is Gene Autry's Silver Haired Daddy of Mine. Though the lyrics are also a little overly sentimental, Armstrong and Jones do the song in a more upbeat way and also sound as if they are having fun with it. <<>>
Another song that has the sound of an early country classic is Oh So Many Years, which has the aura of a 1950s Nashville record. <<>>
One of the traditional songs on the album is Barbara Allen, on which Armstrong does the load vocal, rather than it being a duet throughout as on most of the rest of the tracks. It's another old song about dying lovers. <<>>
Despite their working together for the first time on this CD, Armstrong and Ms. Jones' vocal harmonies developed into a very good musical rapport on some of the songs. On another of the traditional songs Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet, the accompaniment is scaled back to little more than a guitar, and their vocal harmonies really shine. <<>>
One of the highlights on the album for me is a track called Kentucky which is a song of homesickness for the Bluegrass State. It's a bit of a musical departure from the rest of the album but comes off well.
Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones' new CD Foreverly is another example of a pop star taking a musical side trip to some older, more timeless music. While Armstrong is new to this, Ms. Jones has been doing old country songs for quite a while now with her own ongoing band the Little Willies. The result is a very respectable album with very good vocal harmonies for two people who had not worked together prior to this project, and of course, this kind of thing is a far cry from Armstrong's work with Green Day. And while it's competent, generally tasteful, respectably well-done and entertaining, the record does not really break much new ground, especially with a number of other retro quasi-tribute albums appearing recently.
Our grade for audio quality is a "B." I am not a fan of trying to evoke the sound of historic records by recreating their sonic shortcomings. In this case, the vocals have too much of the old-fashioned reverb and echo on them.
When contemporary pop luminaries become fascinated by old styles that pre-date them, and decide to make a record showing off, the results are not always very good. Billie Joe Armstrong, in his collaboration with Norah Jones has created a worthwhile and engaging record.
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