Because she covers Hank Williams and songs made famous by Nina Simone and Hoagy Carmichael, because her debut comes courtesy of revered jazz label Blue Note, because Come Away with Me was produced by Arif Mardin (who has worked with Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson and the Rolling Stones, among others), it's difficult to get a firm grip on Norah Jones, impossible to slap a tag on her so she can be filed away and ignored. Born in Brooklyn, raised in Dallas and settled in New York again, Jones has a slippery style that's informed by where she grew up, where she studied and where she lives now, though not dominated by any of those places -- or any person, or any particular music, for that matter.
The only stamp on this album comes from her heart and soul alone. Come Away with Me is spectacularly steady, especially for a debut album by a 22-year-old singer-songwriter-pianist, going its own way without a map or even a road, yet never veering off its chosen path. She meets Nick Drake and Lucinda Williams and Dinah Washington, among others, along the way, but she never breaks stride, she never stops long enough to get stuck in a rut.
The disc envelops a full record store of categories and potential pigeonholes, from country to cabaret to folk to piano-bar blues and simmering soul, but Jones alights on each with the subtle touch of a skilled actor, almost imperceptibly toying with her line readings. Instead of coming off as a mix tape of influences, Come Away with Me is a 14-song examination of Jones's musical personality, a long look at how all of the styles and all of her substance come together to floor you with the softest punch ever thrown. It's not all over the place; it's all from one place. The difference is slight but distinct, and that's the trick.
The Norah Jones Band opens for John Mayer
Numbers, 300 Westheimer
Wednesday, March 27; 713-526-6551
Actually, there aren't many tricks to be found on Come Away with Me; the disc is almost stripped bare of ornament, the fat trimmed away to reveal only Jones's Sunday-morning voice and singing-to-myself sincerity. Her seductive murmur is a smoky hush that falls all over each song. When she whispers, "Come away with me and we'll kiss on a mountaintop / Come away with me / And I'll never stop loving you," a bag is packed before the song ends. When she moans, on "Shoot the Moon," "Will you think of times you've told me / That you knew the reason why we had to each be lonely," she's so sad and strong, it's more genuine than any song deserves to be. And though she wrote or co-wrote only three of the songs on the album, Jones's singular voice owns all of them, even familiar tunes like "Cold Cold Heart," which has been covered and recovered so often you'd think Hank wrote it in an upholstery shop.
Still, as skilled as she is at interpreting others' material, it's obvious from the songs she wrote for this record -- "Nightingale," "The Long Day Is Over" and the title track -- that Come Away with Me is merely sticking a big toe into the depths of her talent.
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