Norah Jones: The Fall

RIYL Cassandra Wilson, Grace Potter, Patty Larkin

Advance word to the contrary, Norah Jones’ fourth album shows a marked change in approach but little difference in attitude. Stirring up the ambiance with synths, effects, beats and a general trend towards more modern programming tools, Jones lays out a steady series of laments about traitorous lovers and ruined relationships with a distinct emphasis on disillusionment in general. Titles like “Stuck,” “I Wouldn’t Need You” and “You’ve Ruined Me” offer an early hint of her malfunctioning mindset, but lines like “If I touched myself the way you touched me…then I wouldn’t need you,” speak directly to her disappointment. Conversely, the carnival-like atmosphere of “Chasing Pirates,” the practically jaunty “Tell Yer Mama” and the propulsive duo of “Young Blood” and “It’s Gonna Be” prove a welcome respite from the deathly serious tact that Jones helped trademark on her three earlier albums.

Norah edit 2

And while there’s still ample evidence of that wounded, torch song set-up imbued in “Manhattan,” “Even Though,” “I Wouldn’t Need You” and “Waiting,” even her more sobering perspectives seem somewhat more illuminated, given fuller arrangements that detract attention from her solitary keyboard and instead steer the proceedings towards the emphatic strum of her electric guitar. Ending the album on a lighter note that finds her offering an ode to her dog – the winsome “Man of the Hour” – shows that for her all her trepidation and turmoil, Jones has the capability of picking herself up, no matter how serious the fall. Blue Note 2009

Norah Jones MySpace page


Timothy B. Schmit: Expando

RIYL: Graham Nash, America, Poco

Despite his indelible imprint on several generations of Southern California soft rockers – from Poco to the Eagles and various side duties along the way in support of his like-minded peers – Timothy B. Schmit has only rarely taken the solo spotlight via a mere handful of individual albums over the expanse of the past 40 years or so. With Expando, Schmit does what he’s always done beast, offering up a set of unassuming, inoffensive mid-tempo pop songs that spotlight his lilting vocals and amiable, good-natured melodies.

Indeed, if the new album reflects a burnished, distinctly ‘70s feel, its for good reason; Graham Nash, Levon Helm, Van Dyke Parks, Jim Keltner and the ever-present Benmont Tench are among the venerable old school stalwarts lending support. Not surprisingly, Schmit’s most impressive offerings are those that find him testing his upper register – specifically, “Ella Jean,” “A Good Day” and “Secular Praise,” a song that finds the Blind Boys of Alabama providing gospel accompaniment. The latter can also be found on the Blind Boys’ new Duets LP, where it also stands out as among the best of that bunch.

In fact, the only time Schmit seems out of his element is when he delves into a hint of blues and funk, respectively – as on lead-off track “One More Mile” and the tongue-in-cheek “White Boy From Sacramento.” Here’s a hint as far as the latter is concerned – the title tells all. (Lost Highway 2009)

Timothy B. Schmit website


Joss Stone: Colour Me Free

RIYL: Aretha Franklin, Christina Aguilera, Sly & the Family Stone

British soul singer Joss Stone’s fourth album finds her mining some familiar territory, but also stepping out with a variety of collaborations that touch on fresh ground. Opening track and lead single “Free Me” sets the tone with a feel-good, funky soul rock number that Stone does as well as anyone these days. Later tracks like “Incredible” and “You Got the Love” also mine upbeat funky grooves where Stone’s dynamic voice really shines. The sounds of the early ’70s are well represented on R&B lament “Could Have Been You” and “Parallel Lines,” which opens with some electric piano funk that recalls Stevie Wonder’s classic “Superstition.” No less than Jeff Beck adds tasty guitar fills while Sheila E. provides the backing vocals for one of the album’s best tracks.

“4 and 20” is a playful ballad not about the sweet leaf, but Stone’s desire for a man to prove his love 24 hours a day. Raphael Saadiq chips in vocals on “Big Ole Game,” a funky mid-tempo tune with a sexy vibe, while hip-hop ace Nas helps Stone out on “Governmentalist,” a socially conscious number with a dirty blues-funk sound that would fit right in on the “Dead Presidents” soundtrack. “Trying to find the truth behind the lies,” sings Stone, before Nas comes in to talk smack about cops, the FDA and others who try to keep the people down – “Governmentalists killed the Kennedies, I heard that Joss Stone got the remedy,” raps Nas. David Sanborn contributes some big sax lines to the old school Bo Diddley-type blues of “I Believe It to My Soul,” and Jamie Hartman trades vocals with Stone on moody ballad “Stalemate.”

Colour Me Free finds Stone, still just 22 years old, continuing to expand her sonic palette in a world that would seem to be her oyster. The fact that she’s also willing to take a deeper look at that world on a tune like “Governmentalist” shows that she’s got a lot more happening upstairs than most of her pop contemporaries as well. (EMI 2009)

Joss Stone MySpace page


Lisa Donnelly: We Had a Thing

Although Lisa Donnelly is but unknown at this point, there’s something uncannily familiar about her solo debut. Having fronted the L.A. outfit A.M. Pacific and after mining the Hollywood club circuit, it’s only natural that she should exude the air of a veteran, and indeed the confidence and ease with which she delivers her material belies any hint of relative inexperience. If anything, Donnelly may be too ambitious; We Had a Thing suggests she may be trying to cover too much ground for a first outing. And in fact, with songs that run the gamut from ethereal ballads to propulsive hip-hop, it’s hard to get a handle on Donnelly’s true essence. Try Sarah McLachlan meets Madonna. She even throws some sitar into the mix with the song “Blue,” suggesting a psychedelic spin that quickly turns into a meditative mode. Still, the most telling track on the album – both literally and figuratively – is the leadoff tune “Laugh,” an intriguing narrative about a dinner party encounter with a psychic who preps her for the future. Being that she’s a bit derivative, it’s difficult to read Donnelly’s chances for success based on this album alone. Still, it suggests there’s plenty of potential for ongoing endeavors.
(BT Media 2009)

Lisa Donnelly MySpace page


Sonos: Sonos

A cappella music is supposed to be the domain of fun-for-a-minute novelty acts like the Nylons or the Blenders, and even the best of the genre often sounds as though it was recorded by the same grinning, finger-snapping, vest-wearing nerds you laughed at during spring assembly in high school. The last time anyone cared about an a cappella single was in 1993, when Huey Lewis and the News scored a fluke hit with a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “It’s Alright” – and when a genre’s last taste of success came from Huey Lewis, you know it’s seen better days. Into this cultural vacuum steps the six-member Los Angeles outfit known as Sonos, and although their press materials contain all the dreaded buzzwords used by makers of terminally unhip music – “push the envelope,” “redefine a genre” – their self-titled debut is actually far better than you might expect, especially given their über-hip taste in cover selections (Bjork’s “Jaga,” Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place,” Imogen Heap’s “Come Here Boy”) and/or the presence of AAA radio pox Sara Bareilles, who contributes vocals to her own “Gravity.” It helps that they aren’t a straight a cappella outfit – many of the tracks incorporate light instrumentation, and they aren’t afraid to chop and twiddle with their vocals – but what really puts Sonos across is the ease with which the group manages to substitute a cool modern feel for the stereotypical Up With People vibe. No vests here, in other words – and if Sonos is still a novelty, it’s one that’ll take a good, long while to wear off. (Big Helium 2009)

Sonos MySpace page


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