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Norah Jones: Pick Me Up Off the Floor
by George Graham
(Blue Note Records as broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/8/2020)
It was in the early 2000s that the chanteuse made a figurative comeback, with pop audiences attracted to jazz-influenced, romantic, sultry female vocalists. While k.d. lang had been bringing her brand of chanteuse style vocals to the scene since the early 1990s, it was Norah Jones, with her breakthrough hit Don’t Know Why from her debut solo album Come Away With Me in 2002 that really popularized the style’s revival. Although she followed the album up with some music in a similar vein, since then Norah Jones has been musically restless and demonstrated remarkable versatility during the past 18 years. The daughter of famed Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, Jones has moved toward alternative rock, was in country bands the Little Willies and Puss n Boots, did duets with Ray Charles and Willie Nelson, did an album of Everly Brothers covers with Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day, and has made numerous cameo appearances on albums by artists ranging from Herbie Hancock and the late jazz pianist Harold Mabern to the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, to a Tribe Called Quest’s front-man Q-Tip.
After a somewhat jazzier album called Day Breaks in 2016, and Begin Again a EP collection of singles released last year, she is now out with her eighth formal solo album called Pick Me Up Off the Floor, and stylistically it puts her back into a kind of classic territory evoking her first recordings. But how the album came about is interesting. She had booked a number of one off sessions with collaborators like Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, and jazz drummer Brian Blade and bassist John Patitucci, with the intent of including the songs on the Begin Again collection, but she developed a good deal of material, and it turned out to be quite coherent. The result is for me, her most satisfying album in many years. Although Ms. Jones’ versatility is without question, she is really at her best with the vaguely sultry songs she sings in her one-of-a-kind voice that can seem world-weary and vulnerable at once. While her early albums included a preponderance of material written by others, the new album is all original songs, with four of the tracks being collaborative compositions. Because the album was recorded at different sessions in different places with the intent to make it a diverse collection of singles, the personnel varies quite a bit. The main constant is Ms. Jones’ piano, after doing a couple of albums on which she played more guitar than piano. The arrangements run from smoky ballads to almost rockers, to some country influence with a contribution from a steel guitar. There is also a string section and a guest violinist on some of the tracks. The compositions0 range from breakup songs to laments on the state of the world, most couched in elliptical language.
Opening is one of the ballady tracks, How I Weep, which features a string arrangement. The words are about sadness caused by loss, but it’s up to the listener to decide just what it is that is the source of that melancholia. It’s beautifully done. <<>>
Flame Twin also has lyrics that are both clear in their emotions, but vague as to their circumstance. The arrangement here is a kind of slow-burning funk. <<>>
Also in a sort of classic Norah Jones form is It Hurts to Be Alone a breakup song with a twist or two. With jazz drummer Brian Blade on hand, there is a kind of jazzy feel also evoking old soul records. Ms. Jones’ husband Peter Remm is heard on organ. <<>>
One of the darker songs on the album bears the title Heartbroken, Day After, with an appropriately ruminating arrangement. The song could be interpreted as either a romantic breakup or lament at the political situation. But she also adds a few words of optimism. <<>>
One of the more musically interesting tracks is Say No More with its tricky rhythm and lugubrious horn arrangements. <<>>
To Live has the feel of an old spiritual, with bits of New Orleans influence. Its lyrics again could be taken as a reaction to a relationship or the situation in the world. <<>>
One of two songs co-written with Jeff Tweedy is I’m Alive and his guitars are prominent. One can also heard his stylistic influence in the song. <<>>
Another track that evokes classic early Norah Jones is Stumble On My Way. It’s a kind of vague love song, but with a steel guitar adding an unexpected but appropriate texture. <<>>
Norah Jones new eighth formal solo album Pick Me Up Off the Floor is another fine release from a versatile performer. It marks something of a return to the style of her early days, which for many of us fans, represents what she does best. Despite the fact that it was not originally intended to be an album as such, being made up of a number of one or two-off sessions in different places with different collaborators, it’s remarkably cohesive, and musically tasteful from start to finish. Except for a little electric guitar and organ, most of the instrumentation is acoustic, including acoustic bass on many of the tracks. The songs represent some of her best writing, and her trademark vocals are as fine as ever.
Our grade for sound quality is an “A-minus.” Most of the mix has good clarity. Some of the tracks have a digital delay effect on her vocals, which we can do without, but at least it’s not the badly distorted vocals that have become trendy in certain circles. The recording was volume compressed too much, of course, giving the album a kind of claustrophobic sound, rather than being open and airy.
In her nearly 20 year career, singer-songwriter Norah Jones has covered a lot of musical territory, and she has developed fans for her various projects from rockabilly and country to alternative rock. But to me she seems most comfortable in this kind of intimate setting with her laid back, jazz-influenced style. So for me, Pick Me Up off the Floor is one of her best albums in years.
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