Norah Jones was probably your mom’s favorite artist at some point. With that smoky, silky voice and those cabaret-pop arrangements, Jones’s music is, for all intents and purposes, pretty safe stuff. It was precisely this smooth formula that garnered her debut album, 2002’s Come Away with Me, multiple Grammys, and that has kept her on Starbucks music racks and family living room stereos ever since.
Strange, then, that Jones’s newest album, The Fall, is her deliberate attempt to try her hand at harder, edgier sounds on an album billed as a “rock” record. Jones enlisted songwriters Ryan Adams and Will Sheff (Okkervil River) to collaborate on a few songs (not surprisingly the best two on the record), and assembled a cast of more rock-pedigreed musicians to spruce up the arrangements: Joey Waronker (R.E.M. and Beck) sits in on drums, along with guitarists Smokey Hormel (Johnny Cash, Joe Strummer) and Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello).
So, with all this in place, does the record “rock”?
Well, as it turns out, not really. But that’s OK. While the songs on The Fall retain a lot of the breeziness and rhythmic safety that made her past records fairly innocuous, they are noticeably more guitar-driven and loose. The deft hands of Jones’s guest musicians help her tremendously, giving each song a more unwound, freewheeling and live feel. While Jones’s vocals are expectedly in the fore, much emphasis is placed on the musicians themselves, with long instrumental codas and introductions appearing throughout the record.
Lead-off track and first single “Chasing Pirates” is propelled by a grooving Rhodes keyboard and a winding vocal melody, each with a vintage feel reminiscent of early soul records of the ’70s. Adams’s contribution, “Light as a Feather,” is darker and moodier, with stormy folk arrangements and Jones’s voice evoking Emmylou Harris.
Sheff’s “Stuck” is most notable, combining lilting melodies and wide-eyed Tex-Mex soul that sound more at home in an Austin bar than a New York jazz club. Closing track “Man of the Hour” is minimal but endearing, with Jones playfully crooning about her inability to “choose between a vegan and a pothead.”
While The Fall is impressive to a point — Jones has a brilliant voice, with an incredible knack for melody and texture — it does little to dispel her image as tame chanteuse. As with her other records, her songwriting and delivery lack adventure — Adams and Sheff’s songwriting are miles beyond Jones’s, and it shows.
Despite some shortcomings, The Fall is a good listen — all people could use a little latte-rock in their iTunes library. And though these songs are relatively light, don’t expect the same jazz-pop lullabies that made Jones’s career in the past — there’s a good helping of fuzzed-out guitar and instrumental interplay and plenty of soul-drenched vocals to be found. Having said that, you’re mom’s probably going to like it.