CD Review of Not Too Late by Norah Jones

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Not Too Late
starstarstarno starno star Label: EMI/Blue Note
Released: 2007
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Almost from the moment her dusky voice and jazz-kissed piano broached the public consciousness, there’s been a backlash against Norah Jones, which is understandable; music that’s arranged this soothingly is hard not to approach with some degree of cynicism, if not outright boredom. The popular knock against Jones is that her music is Starbucks pop for Starbucks people, which is difficult to argue against, even if it isn’t entirely correct.

The thing is, much as Jones’ looks, vocals, and overwhelmingly subtle music may as well have been brewed up in lab for multiplatinum records, she’s never seemed altogether comfortable with her success. Whatever you might think of her albums – and we’ll get to this one shortly – it’s hard not to respect her disregard for her long-term commercial prospects. There’s a lot of money in jazzy piano crooning – hell, just ask Harry Connick, Jr. – but at least so far, Jones has resisted releasing a Come Away With Me II.

This is not to say that her music has completely broken away from the template that made her a star. Just that, for those who have been listening, the changes are easy to spot. Jones’ second album, Feels Like Home, dabbled in country, a sandbox she continued to play in with last year’s release of the self-titled first album from her Little Willies side project – and then there’s El Madmo, the lark of a band in which a fishnetted-and-wigged Jones channels her inner punk. Clearly, she’s more than just “Don’t Know Why.”

That being said, nothing on Not Too Late will change the minds of anyone who has already dismissed Norah Jones as boring or insubstantial; if anything, these songs are subtler and less immediately appealing than those on her first two albums. If you’ve heard the first single, “Thinkin’ about You,” it’s as likely as not that you’ve wondered why Blue Note chose such a drowsy, hook-deficient thing to lead the charge at radio; the simple answer is that it might be the most radio-friendly song on the album.

Here’s the good news: Not Too Late was written or co-written entirely by Jones, and produced her bassist, Lee Alexander, in their home studio, but it manages to almost completely avoid the self-indulgences that tend to bog down this type of project. It’s insular, but enjoyably so, and Jones – even if her material suffers in comparison to some of the stellar covers she’s recorded – emerges as a songwriter not without talent. She manages a few deft turns of phrase throughout the album; of course, the songs are so thoroughly gentle, you’re liable to miss them, but one senses Jones is fine with that.

It may not scale the commercial heights of her first two releases, and may not even be as purely enjoyable a listen, but Not Too Late is a step forward for an artist who could have been forgiven for being too afraid to move.

~Jeff Giles