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(Blue Note Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/11/2009)
Popular artists who expect to maintain a durable career are faced with a choice: either continue to do what you did that made you famous in the first place, or try something new. There are risks in both. Keeping the same sound invites eventual boredom among some fans who may drift away looking for someone new, and also diminish the possibility of finding new audiences. Changing one's style and sound risks alienating some long-time fans who may not be ready for the change.
One of the musical phenomena of the 2000s, Norah Jones, who walked away with so many Grammy Awards for her 2002 debut recording, is now seven years out from that CD, and she was probably thinking about just that dilemma in making her new fourth release. Perhaps because she's still young, and because she has the artistic integrity and interest in experimenting with different groups, which she has been doing on little side projects over the years, Norah Jones definitely came down on the side of change. Her new CD is called The Fall and it features a very different sound than what she became so well-known for on her debut Come Away with Me. She has a different band, a different producer, and her main instrument on the new recording is not her trademark acoustic piano, but very amplified electric guitar. It's definitely a harder-edged recording, and often experimental in sound, occasionally with odd combinations of instruments. Even her vocals are given more electronic effects than on her previous work, though thankfully not badly distorted. Lyrically, after addressing the state of the world on several songs in her previous release Not Too Late in 2007, she largely goes back to variations on the love song, usually with an imaginative take. The result is something that is likely to surprise quite a few of her fans, and I am suspecting some may not be happy with the rougher-hewn sound. But I give her credit for her experimentation, which for the most part works well. And her songs are still first-rate.
The producer for this CD is Jacquire King, who has worked in the more contemporary sphere with people like Kings of Leon and Modest Mouse. But King also worked with Tom Waits, and one can hear some of Waits' dark quality filtering into this CD. One of Waits' collaborators, guitarist Marc Ribot is also heard on Ms. Jones' CD. The personnel does vary quite a bit, for example, there are five different drummers and five different bass players who appear throughout the CD. The supporting musicians come from diverse backgrounds. For example keyboard man James Poyser played with soul singer Al Green, drummer Joey Waronker played with Beck and sat in with R.E.M., guitarist Smokey Hormel played with Johnny Cash. Perhaps that accounts for the rather difficult-to-describe sound of the music.
It's apparent from the opening track that The Fall is definitely not a repeat of Ms. Jones Come Go with Me. Chasing Pirates is an odd mix of a kind of Memphis soul with the edge of alternative rock, with an electronic drum loop. Lyrically it's also an unconventional mixture of a love song with a complaint about insomnia. <<>>
Similar in sound is the following track Even Though, another variation on a love song, with curious batch of instrumental sounds. It was co-written with her long-time collaborator, Jesse Harris. <<>>
[ Ms. Jones collaborated with Ryan Adams in writing the song Light as a Feather. It's one of the darker-sounding songs on this not very sunny-sounding album. <<>> ]
There is one song in which Ms. Jones comments on the state of the world. It's Gonna Be is given one the rockier treatments on this rather electric album. <<>>
Lyrically, perhaps the most straight-out love song is I Wouldn't Need You. One could imagine these lyrics set to a jazz ballad, but instead there's the vaguely unsettling sound with guitars hinting at the soundtrack of a spaghetti Western. <<>>
A bit more toward an actual ballad-style song is Back to Manhattan, which is apparently about an interborough love affair, with him in Brooklyn, and her in Manhattan. It's nicely done, but still with some quirkiness. <<>>
One of the brighter sounding tracks is You Ruined Me, a relatively upbeat waltz, which despite the title is a love song. <<>>
There is one track that is more like the Norah Jones her fans have known. December even features her Come Go with Me collaborator Jesse Harris on guitar. <<>>
The CD ends with fun song called Man of the Hour a love song to a pet dog, with Ms. Jones on a muffled-up piano. <<>>
Norah Jones' new fourth CD The Fall definitely marks a change in sound for the acclaimed singer-songwriter. Trying to avoid artistic stagnation, she has gone for a harder-edged, but sonically eclectic sound, jettisoning the piano-based, jazzy milieu for distorted guitars and swampy vintage electric keyboards. With a different producer -- one who has worked with Tom Waits -- and an assortment of different backing musicians, the result may come as a surprise to those expecting more along the lines of her first recording. I definitely give her credit for experimenting and avoiding repeating her early hits, but I've got to say, this is not my favorite Norah Jones album. The songwriting quality is there, her vocals are as appealing as ever, but the instrumental backing is not such a good match, in my view.
On the sonic side, we'll give this a B-minus, for the in-your-face pumped-up sound that erases any of the music's dynamics. The constant delay effect on Ms. Jones' vocal is also annoying after a while. But despite that, her vocals have good clarity and intelligibility.
While she departs from the sound that made her famous, and some of the new CD work better than other parts, this is after all still Norah Jones, and she remains a most worthy singer-songwriter. And a Norah Jones CD is still an event worth celebrating.
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