Back in 2003, when I was still just a teenager, I was driving in the car with my father and he was playing Norah Jones’s Come Away With Me and marveling over the fact that she was Ravi Shankar’s daughter. At the time, youthful rebellion got the best of me and I told him that she wasn’t any good because her music had no sense of urgency, not like the punk bands I was listening to anyway. In the decade since, I like to think that I’ve matured some (though my family and friends may debate the point) and that my tastes have expanded to include the brand of soulful pop music with tinges of country and jazz that Jones perfected so well on that first album. But even if I hadn’t grown in the years since that first listen, Jones most certainly did, releasing a few more albums in the same musical vein before exploring some different sides of herself on the last two records, The Fall and Little Broken Hearts.
While The Fall was certainly surprising and proved that Jones could ably sing a pop song that leaned much more rock than jazz or country, the album still felt like something you’d hear on vh1 instead of playing on the jukebox at your local bar. Little Broken Hearts marked Norah’s official entry into making music very much of the moment. Produced by Danger Mouse, Little Broken Hearts sounds like it was made in the 21st century, a feat not accomplished on her previous output, most of which, while excellent, sounded more like the music your parents would listen to while they made dinner.
At the eve of 2013, Norah Jones quietly released a covers album simply called Covers, available exclusively at Target stores, featuring 10 tracks that she had recorded over the past ten years. These songs sit firmly in the corner of her earlier work, with arrangements featuring mostly sparse instrumentation: pianos, acoustic guitars, upright bass, drums, and the occasional accordion or steel guitar flourish. My newfound adult sensibility quite enjoyed listening to these songs while sipping a glass of chianti and cooking dinner–damn, I am turning into my parents, somebody help me! But the real strength on these tracks, as on all of Jones’s work, is her smooth rasp of a singing voice. She nimbly shapes herself to the songs, which makes her the best covers artist this side of Cat Power. And unlike Cat Power, you can still recognize the song she’s paying homage to even as she makes each uniquely her own. The clipped guitar rhythm’s of Wilco’s “Jesus, etc.” remains on her version, lending it just the right amount of urgency and melancholic desperation that just about any Jeff Tweedy song deserves. And then there’s the constant guitar chugging of Johnny Cash’s “Cry, Cry, Cry” and the tinkling jazz piano of Horace Silver’s “Peace.” Of course, not every song works, like Willie Nelson’s “Hands on the Wheel,” which suffers more from M. Ward’s presence than anything else. Like all of Ward’s work, it’s not really bad per se, it’s just kind of boring and inconsequential. Nevertheless, the album flows better than most covers compilations and provided an interesting glimpse into where Jones musical sensibilities come from.
Now, to see where she’s going, we turn to the Little Broken Hearts Remix EP, which features three songs from her last album remixed by Dave Sitek, guitarist from TV on the Radio, two remixed by Spanish DJ Jose Padilla, and one song reimagined by Peter, Bjorn and John, remixes that wouldn’t seem out of place on the Drive soundtrack and makes you feel like you you just did some hard drugs and time has suddenly slowed down. Very chill club music.
Does anyone else find it weird that the girl who was described by Allmusic reviewer David R. Adler to a combination of Rickie Lee Jones, Bonnie Raitt, and “Alicia keys for grown-ups” is being given the club remix treatment by indie bands and European electronica DJs? But that really speaks to just how much Jones evolved her sound and her musical interests on Little Broken Hearts. This isn’t really a reinvention, just a recalibration of her immense talents. You never want to see an artist grow bored and just start churning out facsimiles of their previous work. One thing that must be said about Norah Jones’s prolific output of material is that it’s always worth at least a listen or two, just to see what she’s up to, a fact I couldn’t have imagined would be true when I listened to Come Away With Me for the first time in my dad’s car all those years ago. So next time you’re wandering around Target–don’t act like you’re too good for Target, their commercials for everyday household items and groceries are nothing short of hilarious and their deals are amazing!–pick up Covers and toss it on your iTunes while you’re cooking dinner. It’ll make you feel like a grown-up, trust me. Then throw on the Little Broken Hearts Remix EP and do some Jager bombs with your friends. C’mon, you might be an adult but you’re not dead! Happy listening, friends, raise your glasses to hoping that the next decade of Norah’s career will be as fruitful as the last. Cheers!