Norah Jones: …Featuring Norah Jones

RIYL: Diana Krall, Eva Cassidy, Bonnie Raitt

Since beginning with the smash hit Come Away With Me in 2002, Norah Jones’ recording career has been a study in slow, carefully measured decline. Clearly not willing to pigeonhole herself as a crooner of piano ballads, Jones has tugged away from the dulcet tones of her debut – but because she has label bosses to answer to (or maybe just because she’s smart enough to stay the course), she hasn’t totally broken with the sound that made her famous, and the result has been a string of lukewarm records that hint at the artist Jones wishes she could be, if only the stakes weren’t so high.

The shame of it all is that Jones’ kitten’s purr of a voice, while perfect for selling lattes, sounds just as fine – if not finer – out of its established context. Over the years, Jones has built a reputation for herself as a terrific guest vocalist with a wonderful sense of humor, popping up on recordings by everyone from Outkast to Ray Charles, and singing about everything from Chex Mix (on the Lonely Island song “Dreamgirl”) to motherfuckers (Peeping Tom’s “Sucker”). Sadly, neither of those songs made the cut for this collection, but you get the idea: …Featuring Norah Jones might bear the unmistakable stink of a contract-fulfillment release, but by bundling up 18 noteworthy collaborations, it does an arguably better job of highlighting her strengths than anything since Come Away With Me.

If there’s a real quibble here, it’s that the really left-field stuff (like the Lonely Island and Peeping Tom songs) was left off, and while you do get to hear Jones doing stuff she can’t do as a solo artist (like playing hook girl for Q-Tip and Talib Kweli on “Life Is Better” and “Soon the New Day,” respectively), much of …Featuring‘s charms are more subtle, like hearing her slip inside Joni Mitchell’s “Court & Spark” alongside Herbie Hancock, or her lovely vocals for Charlie Hunter’s “More Than This” cover. Taken as a whole, it doesn’t reinvent Jones’ sound the way she often seems halfway inclined to do, but it’s a damn sight more interesting than, say, 2009’s The Fall. Here’s hoping she listens to this compilation often while composing her next full-length set. (Blue Note 2010)

Norah Jones MySpace page


SXSW 2010 Quick Hits, Day 4: She & Him

Rachel Ray’s day party at Stubbs BBQ was on a roll from Jakob Dylan to Street Sweeper Social Club, then back to the main stage for She & Him. It was quite a change in vibe to downshift from the powerhouse rock of SSSC to the mellower vintage pop stylings of She & Him, but Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward rose to the occasion with a well-received set to close out the party.

The charming Deschanel has the voice of an angel and Ward seems like the perfect choice to orchestrate a band around her to maximize those talents. The Chapin Sisters were brought out to add extra harmonies as well, which was an extra treat. The band’s sound pays tribute to a bygone era, but there’s still a fresh vibe demonstrating that classic sounds never go out of style. Deschanel and Ward conjure a dreamy ambiance, making it feel as if the band has set up on a cloud somewhere. The final song even featured the band revving up for a big jam, with Ward rocking out some bluesy riffage on guitar, showing that the band has diverse skills at their fingertips. It’s a rare actress that can hold her own musically as well as she does on screen, and Deschanel delivers.

She & Him, SXSW 2010
Photo by Steve Hopson


She & Him: Volume Two

RIYL: Linda Ronstadt, The Mamas & the Papas, Rosie Thomas

There’s a pretty short list of things you can reasonably expect from an album titled Volume Two, which probably has a lot to do with why Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward decided to use it for their sophomore effort – like their first album, it’s a slight, competently crafted set of retro-evocative mid-tempo numbers, a sort of thrift store trip through the Laurel Canyon pasts of female singers like Linda Ronstadt and Laura Nyro, and by giving it this title, Deschanel and Ward might have been trying to deflect some of the crushing hype that’s dogged them since they announced their collaboration.

Can’t blame ‘em for trying. Actually, they could have tried a little harder – like the first outing, Volume Two has a lazy, tossed-off feel; nothing here is bad enough to make you switch it off, but neither does much of the record stand out. Deschanel’s gotten a lot of credit for being an actor with a real, live singing voice, just as Ward’s been applauded for giving his recordings a warmly authentic retro vibe – but singers are supposed to be able to sing, and music isn’t supposed to need computer gimmicks. All the She & Him hype is based around giving the band credit for things that are supposed to come naturally to musicians, which is puzzling. When did indie rock turn into the Special Olympics?

That might sound a little harsh for an album this offhandedly charming, but there’s no getting around the fact that She & Him intentionally beggar comparisons to better bands, and their music sounds awfully hollow in the bargain. Deschanel sings about heartbreak, and Ward lays on the pedal steel like syrup, but there’s a smirking detachment lurking behind the whole thing that sounds like play-acting. It’s most evident when they try and tackle a page from a truly great songbook – as with Volume Two’s ill-advised cover of NRBQ’s “Ridin’ in My Car” – but it’s always there. You’re better off revisiting the work of the band’s most obvious influences and working your way forward from there. (Merge 2010)

She & Him MySpace page

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21st Century Breakdown: The iDecade: Michael Fortes’ Ten “Best” Albums of the Aughts

As the aughts draw to a close… who cares? Seriously, who really does care? Does it mean the same to you as it does to me? I ask because this is what I see:

The span of time between the years 2000 and 2009 was like no decade that came before in that, given the rapid and ever more sophisticated advances in technology, we’ve been able to create our own very unique cultural experiences. There may be no “i” in “team” or “us” or “together,” but “i” creeped into our TV viewing experiences (TiVo), our telephones (the iPhone), our computers (how about the iMac?), and – most significantly – the way we listen to music (iTunes, the iPod, etc.), which is arguably where many of our personalized media experiences began in the first place. Which is great, on one level. If we only want to hear what we want to hear at the moment that we want, we can have that experience for relatively little money, at any time we please.

But on the other hand, what was threatening to become reality pretty much happened in the ’00s – we collectively eliminated the possibility of there ever being another Beatles, Elvis Presely or Michael Jackson, someone that most of us can all agree on. Given that Michael left us mid-way through the last year of the decade, we have effectively lost our last great pop culture figure, and even he was vulnerable to the pressures of our shape-shifting culture. The one album of all original material he released this decade (2001’s Invincible) was not only one of his poorest sellers, it also sucked way more often than it didn’t. Granted, we still have two Beatles left, but even Paul McCartney hasn’t been able to produce an album that could unite all of his old and young fans the way his work with the Beatles continues to do.

Which brings us to the album itself. It’s not completely dead, and will always have a place so long as musicians think of themselves as artists and still revel in the joy of creating a cohesive work of art. But let’s face it – fewer people are buying albums (on CD, that is – digital download sales and even sales of vinyl records continue to increase, though not nearly enough to offset the decline in CD purchases). And that translates to fewer people who can come together to agree on which ones are great, and which ones are best forgotten. And fewer people to care.

Having said all that, in conjunction with our End of Decade series, I present to you my picks for ten best albums of the decade, in no particular order. These are albums that, for one reason or another, connected me to many, many different people over the past ten years, all of whom mean something to me. Maybe you’re one of them, or maybe you will be someday.

Doves – Lost Souls (2000)
Queens of the Stone Age – Rated R (2000)
Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes (2008)
M. Ward – The Transfiguration of Vincent (2003)
Brian Wilson – Smile (2004)
The Gutter Twins – Saturnalia (2008)
Beck – Sea Change (2002)
Ambulance LTD – LP (2004)
Erykah Badu – Mama’s Gun (2000)
Herbie Hancock – River: The Joni Letters (2007)


Monsters of Folk: Monsters of Folk

RIYL: Hem, The Weepies, Bittersweets

The term “super group” is bandied about all too frequently, often arousing great expectations that are rarely fulfilled. The door to disappointment is left wide open; participants hedge when it comes to contributing their best songs or find their creativity stifled when compromising to serve to other egos. Yet while it’s rare to witness the second coming of an all-star outfit like Blind Faith or Crosby Stills and Nash, a blending of big names inevitably cranks up the curiosity factor regardless.

On the other hand, a summit session involving lo-fi provocateurs M Ward, Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis and Jim James (AKA Yim Yames) might be greeted with some hint of suspicion, given the fact none of them is known for emphatic exposition. Surprisingly then, this, their first recorded collaboration, comes across as significantly more inviting and accessible than just about anything these individuals have managed on their own. While the name of the conglomerate indicates a tongue planted firmly in cheek, the songs themselves are straightforward and sincere. What’s more, given the fact that the songwriting is shared collectively and that all the instrumentation is doled out between them, the set is surprisingly consistent, showing equal input from all four contributors. And though most of the music is on the mellow side, the melodies make an emphatic impression – from the folkie sing-along of “Man Named Truth” and the gentle caress of “Magic Marker” and “His Master’s Voice,” to the breezy country sway of “The Right Place” and the steady ascent of “Whole Lotta Losin’” and “Ahead of the Curve.” They’ve done their ongoing outfits proud, while making what may well be the best album of their collective careers. (Shangri-La 2009)

Monsters of Folk MySpace page