Talk about being in the right place at the right time with the right sound and the right material, this little lady is the poster child for that extremely rare phenomenon. The fact that she had a unique talent to go along with her fortunate timing didn’t hamper her a bit, either. Her astounding 2002 debut took the world by storm and brought dignity and respect back to the art of being a female vocalist. She didn’t need ridiculous costumes or racy lyrics or outrageous stage antics to draw attention to her craft, she simply stayed true to herself and the public couldn’t resist such unadorned honesty. Norah Jones became a star almost overnight. Two years later she released her follow up album, “Feels Like Home,” and speculation about her ability to endure evaporated like tea kettle steam when it sold 1.3 million units in the first week it was made available. Her knack for blending jazz sensibilities with strains of C&W, blues and contemporary Americana is uncanny and her unhurried style appeals to people all over the globe regardless of localized musical preferences. She is one of a kind and that is a commodity that can’t be manufactured.
Like the songs she amassed for “Come Away With Me,” the selection of tunes included on this, her sophomore effort, are pleasant without being patronizing. She opens with “Sunrise,” a serene but rhythmic number that further showcases her incredibly sweet voice and her delicate approach to playing the piano. “What I Am to You” is next and with the help of the inimitable Levon Helm on drums and Garth Hudson on organ (both from the iconic Band) it comes off as a slightly funky, soulful R&B ditty. Tony Scherr’s slippery slide guitar work is also worth noting. “Those Sweet Words” follows, another smooth, effortlessly flowing song that has no obvious indiscretions to report. The first standout cut is “Carnival Town.” It has a quaint feel produced sans drums that makes it very inviting and unpretentious while the silky harmonies and Arif Mardin’s arrangement for the cello and viola are exquisite. Norah moves to the Wurlitzer electric piano for “In the Morning,” and that trusty keyboard generates a darker backdrop to deepen the tune’s overall ambience. The distinctly blues-ish tint involved distinguishes this track from what’s come before and gives it a light Little Feat vibe that I like a lot. Jones then revives a Townes Van Zandt gem called “Be Here to Love Me” and I really appreciate how they left Norah’s vocal naked and natural for this one. The gospel hue she applies to the R&B groove is a nice, classy touch and Garth Hudson contributes his special magic via his accordion.
Jones duets with Dolly Parton on “Creepin’ In,” an up-tempo, bluegrass-influenced song that provides a wise, tactical change of pace moment in the disc’s progression. The subtle, closely-knit harmonies they sing are a treat, thanks in no small measure to Adam Levy’s third part, and Rob Burger’s smoky pump organ adds rich icing to the cake. “Toes” sports another sexy, sultry atmosphere that relocates your mood gently from this crazy world to a rural setting. Norah’s vocalizing is so cool it’s akin to gratefully absorbing a brisk October breeze after a long, hot summer. A basic acoustic guitar foundation that glides underneath “Humble Me” allows Jones’ voice to carry the song solely upon her honest, unforced emotions which are conveyed without apology. There’s no mistaking that “Above Ground” is a Norah Jones production because she is so reliably seductive in her methods. This time Adam Levy provides the scintillating yet tactful slide guitar that gives the track character. “The Long Way Home,” written by the wonderful Tom Waits, is an opportunity for Norah to parade her country/folk roots proudly but she avoids becoming campy by presenting them in a minimalist style. Daru Oda’s flutes are a nice surprise for one’s ears. Jones returns to her acoustic piano for “The Prettiest Thing” and the tune is decent enough but at this juncture I feel that she could’ve taken some kind of risk. However, she exits with flair. Her restructuring of an old Duke Ellington song, “Don’t Miss You at All,” and making it her very own turns out to be the highlight of the album. Employing only her piano for accompaniment, it’s the jazziest thing on the record, expertly exploiting the tune’s gorgeous chord progression and haunting melody.
“Feels Like Home” went all the way to #1 in 16 separate countries around the planet, eventually racking up over ten million copies sold. That’s astonishing. Yet I’m not all that shocked. As the gifted Adele has demonstrated recently, nothing shines brighter in this dimmed dimension we live in than pure, undiluted talent and when it’s delivered without unnecessary fanfare or hoopla the response can be overwhelming. Without a doubt, Norah Jones is going to be around to remind us of that fundamental but easily overlooked tenet for years to come. She refreshes my faith that good, wholesome music will always survive false, corrupting trends.