I really like Norah’s first album. Released two years ago, it wasn’t perfect but, like any diamond in the rough, there was brilliance that shone through. It deserved all the praise it received and the millions in sales it generated — going platinum eight times in the U.S. I personally own it on CD, SACD and vinyl.
But, trying to create a blockbuster follow-up to "Come Away with Me" is almost an impossible feat. Second installments of anything are very hard to get right. Whether it’s a TV show, movie or CD, the sophomore outing usually never lives up to expectations.
Despite Blue Note records bringing the winning team back for a second try — including (producer Arif Mardin, engineer Jay Newland and The Handsome Band — including Lee Alexander on bass and Adam Levy on guitar) the singer/songwriter/pianist’s second album, "Feels Like Home" is no exception.
And it’s disappointing not only when compared to her first. When taken on its own, despite really wanting to love it, I found it difficult to listen to it all the way through.
The songs on “Feels Like Home” are nice enough — a few standout as very good. And Jones’s spectacular voice is there in perfect form. But an album should be more than the sum of a few good cuts. Jones says the new album is “not quite as mellow” as her first outing “but it’s still pretty low-key.”
The problem here is song selection. Jones, in an effort to give everyone in her back-up band a chance to shine, uses at least one song from each member of the group. She wrote some of the songs with Alexander. As a cohesive collection of 13 songs they could have done better. Much better.
Of the standout songs, “Sunrise” opens the disk. It’s the song they decided to pre-release a few weeks ago to whet every fans appetite. It’s a catchy tune which, after listening a number of times, is the perfect first single from the album and seems to me the best chance for a hit. Only problem is it seems to lack a proper finish. It just seems to stop.
“What Am I to You?” somehow reminds me of numerous Bonnie Raitt songs. It is notable for some of the people doing the backing up — Levon Helm and Garth Hudson from the legendary group “The Band.” Thanks for letting us hear them again.
“Carnival Town” is the best cut on the album to hear what Norah can do with her voice. The multi-tracking harmonies are worth the price of admission. “Be Here to Love Me” is penned by Townes Van Zandt and as many of the other new cuts on “Feels Like Home” is performed as a country-rock anthem. Jones does hail from Texas. The same treatment is given to “The Long Way Back Home” written by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. Drop the rock leanings and you get the pure-country of “Creepin’ In” complete with guest singer Dolly Parton.
The CD’s 13th cut, “Don’t Miss You at All” deserves special note. The lyrics are Jones’s and the music comes from Duke Ellington — based on his “Melancholia”. It’s a pretty melody and another showcase for Jones’s terrific voice.
A few weeks ago, Jones’s public relations machine placed a featured article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Jones set the tone — saying this new album is a snapshot of where the band was when they recorded it from April through December 2003. Everyone involved hoped fans will like it but knew comparisons to the first album would make that difficult.
What I got out of the piece was that they were trying to soften the blow. And after hearing “Feels Like Home” I understand why. But, like everything else in life this should be chalked up as a learning experience. I’m already waiting to hear what’s next from one of this country’s most dynamic voices.
"Feels Like Home"
Norah Jones with the Handsome Band and special guests
Blue Note Records 84800