By Mark Guarino
Disliking Norah Jones because her music induces sleep is kind of like dismissing the Girl Scouts because their cookies induce cavities. Sure, you can make the case, but they’re still going to sell out the aisles anyway.
In 2002, Jones became a one-woman brand of comfortably numb coffeehouse music that blended jazz, folk and country without ever announcing itself as either. With coffee chains and bookstores today’s major music retailers, she is a lifestyle choice for consumers interested in music not for primary listening, but more as a mood enhancer. Considering that her first two albums sold about 27 million copies combined, that mood is colored gold.
Despite side projects — from her cameo on an album by Faith No More singer Mike Patton, to her country band the Little Willies to a punk cover band she performs in around Manhattan — Jones is determined to play it safe on her own records. In stores today, “Not Too Late” is the third addition to her franchise. Despite the charms of her voice — her controlled vibrato and sensual tones — she remains largely a passive singer in a strictly controlled environment. At this stage of the game, it could have been worth the challenge to seek out a new set of collaborators. Instead, Jones remains attached to singer Dara Oda, songwriter Richard Julian, guitarist Jesse Harris, boyfriend-producer Lee Alexander and others who collectively have to be the least inventive musicians working today. Instead of challenging the singer or seeking inventive inroads to these songs, the music they make grinds to a halting tempo, striving to be pacified.
Partial reason for the stunted growth is that Jones is insistent to cover her original songs instead of seeking covers by more talented songwriters that might expand her emotional depth. The cutesy “Little Room” and mournful “Wish I Could” are threadbare in their arrangements while “Sinkin’ Soon,” the most atypical song here, sounds more like a band trying to recreate the comical curbside blues of a Tom Waits song, complete with a squawking trombone and rhythm knocked out on pots and pans.
Jones’ voice has a natural quiver to it, a downbeat quirk that can make anything sound blue but not too morose. As a lyricist, she plumbs further depths. “My Dear Country” is as closest as she comes to anger — “nothing is as scary as election day/but the day after is darker” — the music refuses to hammer. Instead, the words float away, taking their authority with them.