By Mark Guarino
How polite is Norah Jones? Norah Jones is so polite that when she presented the best new artist award at the Grammys Sunday, she made no mention that her own album — the much-anticipated “Feels Like Home” (Blue Note) — was in stores today. In a roomful of careerists whose very existence is dependent on hype, you could hear gasps.
Those good manners were the selling point for Jones’ monster success two years ago. Since record industry sales began their downward spiral, Jones’ debut saved the day when nothing could, selling 18 million copies worldwide and counting. Part of the picture was the music — yawning piano pop that was innocuous and soothing and built for everyone, from grandma to the grandkids.
But a bigger contributor to the Jones phenomenon was the fact that she was not Britney Spears. To a cynical buying public flocking to illegal downloads instead of record stores, here was an artist they felt wasn’t being crammed down their throats. Buying Jones’ record was practically a vote for genuineness, not lip syncing or an MTV kiss.
Judging that the world is still debating Janet Jackson’s cleavage, it appears that Jones is still assured her niche. “Feels Like Home” does not necessarily break new ground. Instead, it carefully inches forward, forsaking the light piano fare on her first album for atmospheric, acoustic roots music. Although her piano creeps in, there are further flourishes of pump organ, cello and banjo. Jones writes or co-writes most of the new songs and they all hang around her voice, husky and rich with a sensual Southern charm. But she never pushes her voice too far and she and her band barely raise a ruckus. Their playing on “Sunrise” hangs on the thinnest thread with a chorus that only purrs “ooh” as if it were a prayer.
Although guests Dolly Parton and Levon Helm and Garth Hudson from The Band lend a hand for credibility’s sake, the hushed rustic charm feels a little too Ralph Lauren. Jones and company paint pretty pictures — the sweet ennui of dipping your toes in a river (“Toes”) and watching a Ferris Wheel turn (“Carnival”) — but the playing is so lightly nuanced, these images evaporate just as quickly and never stick.
The only rumple in this wet blanket of mood music is when Parton jumps in headfirst (“Creepin’ In”), pushing the players to get frisky and tipping the delicate balance towards more of a roadhouse fervor. At 24, Jones is too young to be this cautious. But blame the phenomenon that put her in this position. There’s nothing worse than having a chance to say something when you realize, at this point at least, you have nothing to say.