It is the definition of bittersweet. Norah Jones confronts her lover at dawn and whispers that she’s leaving – leaving for a Danger Mouse, darling, sorry to break it to you this way.
Good Morning is the opening track on Jones’s gorgeous new record, which is produced and co-written by Brian Burton, that wunderkind collaborator with the cartoon-character sobriquet. The song – some hazy, languid Lee Hazlewood morning – signals the album’s darker, icier tones. Yes, that’s a cello. Breezy it isn’t.
“More loving is all I was after,” she explains, “but you couldn’t give it, so I’m moving on.” And is she ever.
In 2002, the singer greeted us in a Grammy-winning way: Come Away With Me was her irresistible debut album. It’s been something of a trip ever since, with the ear-catching single Don’t Know Why seeming so far in the past now. The path, which began slowly, has picked up speed lately. Earlier this year she released a second LP with her roots-country group the Little Willies. The year 2011 saw her involved with Burton, the rock ‘n’ roll Renaissance man Jack White and the Italian composer Daniele Luppi for Rome, a work of high concept and Morricone-styled cinema music.
Little Broken Hearts, you could guess, is about a relationship split and moving on from the wreckage. We hear Jones’s calling card, that smoky, sweet and sultry voice. It is one of the most listenable and supple natural instruments of our time. Burton beds it with contemporary production – strings, synths, dryly strummed guitars and modern, measured beats. Tranquil, downcast psychedelia is also at work.
There’s a queer pertness, quivering vocal effect and Wurlitzer wobble to Say Goodbye, which could have been just another melodic Jones piano tune without Burton in charge.
The title track uses a reverberating guitar shudder to accent chilly thoughts on a restless couple: “Beautiful soldiers in their bed, makin’ love inside their heads.” This is sex together and apart.
I’m not sure about Jones as a lyricist. That last Little Willies record (For the Good Times) was a covers disc, and The Fall, her previous solo album, addressed similar themes as Little Broken Hearts. Two breakup records in a row? Really?
That being said, the sounds, singing, arrangements and melodies carry the day. On the liquidly forlorn She’s 22 – oh, that younger harlot – the readable emotion in Jones’s voice stops you in your tracks. On the chorus to the twinkle-and-twanged 4 Broken Hearts, one swears Neko Case had pushed aside Jones in the studio – the latter’s vocals never having sounded so steely before.
So who is this record for? Do the indie kids flock to this stylish new Jones? Do the soccer moms blanch at the sophistication? It’s hard to say. The bouncy lead single Happy Pills, with its playful synthesizer riff and radio-ready chug, is something to which the singer’s long-time fans would bop heads. The stately ballad Miriam courts Adele appreciators. And All a Dream sounds likes a malnourished Black Keys track (I mean this in a good way).
On Out On The Road, the most unremarkable of the dozen selections, Jones sings “on the way to paradise, a little voice says, ‘Don’t think twice, and don’t look back if you want things to change.' “In more ways than one, that’s what this album is about. Norah Jones moves on. Who will come away with her now?
Little Broken Hearts
- Norah Jones
- Blue Note
Other new releases
Master of My Make-Believe
- Three stars
Even though she’s no crooner, Santi White has a powerful voice. She cops a punky reggae shout for her de rigueur second-album broadsides against the music industry, a truth-to-power holler that makes your head neck snap around as you cruise past it. That arresting quality isn’t much use when her complaints are lazy, or when her beats veer toward ersatz “ethnic fusion” – The Riot’s Gone and This Isn’t Our Parade could both be sampled from the Lion King soundtrack. But when White gets her swagger on, spitting insults like an automatic pistol on Look At These Hoes or cracking wise about competitors (“now we buy you by the pound”) on Freak Like Me, she’s electric. Dave Morris
- Carrie Underwood
- Sony Music
- Two stars
Underwood is a country singer out of the Linda Ronstadt school – that is, one who prefers the crunch of Marshall stacks to the whine of a pedal steel, and who believes any song melody worth singing deserves belting. In that sense, what the title of her fourth album most evokes is the guy from the old Maxell ads, pinned to his chair by the sound. Although she’ll happily tax your speakers with the likes of Good Girl, all sound and fury and signifying nothing, it’s bothersome that even the quiet numbers such as the Alzheimer’s weeper Forever Changed seem oversold. Next time she should turn down the volume and crank up the sincerity. J.D. Considine
Stronger For It
- Janiva Magness
- Three stars
Somebody messed with the deep-throated blues shouter Janiva Magness, yet she survives. A dozen songs – originals and covers of Tom Waits, Gladys Knight, Ike Turner, and Buddy and Julie Miller – speak to defiance, pain, vengeance and rising above. Sometimes her gutsy vocals come too close to the belting-broad manner of Sass Jordan, but Magness finds her right spot with Shelby Lynne’s I’m Alive, a bit of Memphis soul there. The finale is Ray Wylie Willie Hubbard’s Whoop and Holler, which is exactly what she does – a revitalized and joyous exhale, taking it on home. Brad Wheeler
Older Than My Old Man Now
- Loudon Wainwright III
- 2nd Story Sound
- Three stars
“I had a few children, wrote a few songs; I got some of it right, and a lot of it wrong.” With his spry, reflective new album, the underappreciated singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright considers family and mortality with frankness and wry jest. On the harmonica-riding Ghost Blues he’s the guest at his own funeral, but elsewhere this is a tuneful affair of friends and family reunited. Guests include his four children, two of their three mothers, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and, on novelty number I Remember Sex, Dame Edna. The piano ballad In C is an affecting appraisal of a life and career – when worlds fell apart, “there’s not a thing I can do, except to sing in C to you.” This is very much your father’s Loudon Wainwright – he hasn’t changed his tune, just his view. B.W.
Loudon Wainwright III plays Toronto’s Hugh’s Room May 2-3, and Victoria’s Hermann’s Jazz Club May 21.