Norah Jones

They're all waiting for her -- the soccer moms who find her soothing, the Pottery Barn bohos who think her appealing, the elitist jazzbos who wonder if she isn't just Roberta Flack with a pedigree, and everyone else for whom Norah Jones proves it possible that talent can still trump all else. Now she reaps the benefits of going titanium while bearing the burdens of going global, all while she's better suited to playing in the neighborhood nightclub; she's damned if she stays the same and screwed if she strays from the same-ol' that made her famous so quickly it almost led her to a breakdown.

So, no one will be disappointed: There's no radical departure here, but just enough twang's been added to the torch to further alienate/infuriate those who wonder how so pop (and popular) a performer landed on Blue Note, the home of Miles and Monk, and climbed so high on the charts, where she's taken up permanent residency.

First (through seventh, give or take) listen through Feels Like Home suggests she's unwilling to tamper with the formula; it's easy listening without the disparaging aftertaste, more background music worth turning up at dinner parties when the conversation drags. The voice remains the same -- pretty but never attention-hungry, appropriate given the shy and occasionally awkward performer to whom it belongs. (She's like the girl who hides behind librarian specs.) Songs, too, are wisely picked: Scattered among the originals penned by bassist-boyfriend Lee Alexander, guitarist Adam Levy, New York singer-songwriter Richard Julian and Jones are songs by Townes Van Zandt ("Be Here to Love Me") for down-home cred, Tom Waits ("The Long Way Home") for downtown cred, Duke Ellington ("Melancholia," morphed into "Don't Miss You at All" with new Jones-penned lyrics -- and what balls!) for those who'd be happy enough if she at least pretended to be jazz every now and again.

But Feels Like Home isn't Come Away with Me, which at this late date feels repetitive and even a touch dull; no wonder it became a hit. The new album is far more varied than its predecessor -- a showcase rather than a label's attempt to show off new talent just finding her way. Country meets jazz plays pop at an upscale blues club where the audience likes its music just loud enough to talk over; imagine Bonnie Raitt turned down to three, with Dolly Parton and the Band's Garth Hudson and Levon Helm stopping by to anoint the child who has made being out of style more in vogue than ever before. Those who believe Jones got the audience that labelmate Cassandra Wilson deserved miss the point: Wilson covered "The Weight" and left it but a dried and discarded husk on the highway, whereas Jones hired the men who wrote the song and asks only that they lend her a bit of their magic. You can hear the joy in Jones's voice, knowing she's stepping into history and not stepping all over it. Wilson, by comparison, is just a drag.

Ultimately, what makes Jones so beloved isn't just her talent, though it would be enough. It's her ability to sound like all things to all people -- jazzer to those who need to hear Ellington and Simone, shit-kicker to those loping along to her laconic shuffle, pop artist to those for whom winsome melody is the beginning and end. Her music's inoffensive, not bland; genuine, not generic; appealing, not stunning. Going out on a limb here: This is gonna be huge.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky