Ms. Jones and Me

Don’t know what to think about Norah Jones. Best new artist of 2002? (Better than the wretched Avril Lavinge). More like the best new guilty pleasure of 2002. Her year-old record, Come Away With Me, has just finally topped the Billboard 200, and it’s everywhere—VH-1, your co-worker’s cubicle, your parents' Bose system, probably even your dentist’s office.

I named Come Away With Me as my tenth favorite album of 2002, a decision I immediately felt sheepish about. I’ve purchased a few albums since making the list a month ago, and now I’d boot her out and put in its place either Our Own Little Corner of the World: Music From Gilmore Girls (easily the best television series soundtrack ever, and not just because it has Sam Phillips on it) or Alison Moyet’s magnificent return to form after eight years in limbo, Hometime. I feel justified, because there is nothing truly remarkable, much less groundbreaking about Norah’s album. It’s a pleasant, polished, tasteful and enjoyable set of songs with an inventive interpretation of Hank Williams’ “Cold Cold Heart” and a few lovely, memorable singles (“Don’t Know Why”, “Feeling The Same Way”, and the title track)—no more, no less.

What really drew me to the record is that extraordinary voice, sort of a cross between Rickie Lee Jones and Billie Holiday, but not entirely like either. And, to possess such an instrument at a young age! It’s impressive in the way a 19 year-old Fiona Apple sounded on her debut album, Tidal. Apple’s follow-up release, When The Pawn… was a quantum leap in every possible way and I can only hope that Norah’s inevitable follow-up will have the same effect. It will be difficult; unlike Norah, Fiona didn’t exactly have the pressure to follow up a number-one album.

The backlash against this 23 year-old jazz/pop (emphasis on the latter) thrush and daughter of Ravi Shankar is inevitably building, but what does Ms. Jones deserve less: the backlash or the praise? All the jazz (and rock critic elite) snobs scoff at the designation of Jones as a jazz singer, and that’s understandable—Ella she’s not (nor Cassandra (Wilson) or even Diana (Krall)). The music on Come Away With Me often plays like a stripped-down, synth-less version of what fortifies most dreadful smooth jazz radio station playlists. Yet, the sparse arrangements are suited to Norah’s voice; they work as well for her as prime Joni Mitchell, another singer/songwriter who has always treaded that strange boundary between pop, jazz, and folk. Of course, Norah’s no Joni, either, but remember that Joni’s earliest records were dwarfed by her early 70’s masterpieces.

Maybe such success will break down doors for other, more obscure young female artists who don’t fit the Avril Lavinge/Michelle Branch/Vanessa Carlton mold (formerly the Britney/Christina/Mandy Moore continuum). If not, at least it will be fun to watch Jones’ career from here. Will subsequent albums show artistic growth or register as limp but best-selling variations of the first? Will Come Away With Me prove to be a first-time, of-the-moment fluke, or simply the first in a series of commercial triumphs? Intriguing questions to ask of any young artist capable of thriving commerically like Sheryl Crow, critically like Alison Moyet or withering (in every possible way) like Alanis Morrisette.