WHEN Geethali Shankar aka Norah Jones burst onto the scene with her 2002 album ‘Come Away With Me’, her sound was as fresh as morning dew. The voice was distinct, the writing simple and effective, and the tunes had a nice piano-backed easy listening feel and jazz flavour.
The world suddenly discovered that Norah was the daughter of Indian sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, and lauded her for making it big without his guidance or backing. The next year, she was the darling of the Grammys, bagging five awards, including the coveted Album of the Year. The numbers ‘Don’t Know Why’, ‘Feelin’ The Same Way’ and the title tune were played everywhere.
Last month, Norah released her fifth solo album ‘Little Broken Hearts’. Prior to the launch, there was a lot of hype around the fact that it was being produced and co-written by Danger Mouse, the extra-talented wiz who’s the brain behind the neo-soul act Gnarls Barkley, hip-hop venture Danger Doom and indie-rock outfit Broken Bells, and who has worked with the Black Keys, Gorillaz and Beck, and also created that masterpiece of an album ‘Dark Night Of The Soul’ with Sparklehorse.
The collaboration with Mr Versatile Himself sounded exciting, and many of us expected Norah in a brand-new avatar. Her look had a makeover, all right, and she’s looking really gorgeous. But after a few listens, one arrived at the conclusion that both Norah and Danger Mouse could have done much, much more. Clearly, the Mouse wasn’t Dangerous enough.
Yes, the new 12-track set has some good songs (‘Say Goodbye’, ‘4 Broken Hearts’, ‘Happy Pills’) and is excellently-produced (‘After the Fall’, ‘All A Dream’). Nice to listen to, definitely, but overall, it offers nothing new — the same old style, probably pepped up like a different kind of pepper on a pepperoni pizza.
Has Norah Jones stagnated? Being a huge fan of her earlier efforts, one would say yes. And the reason perhaps is that she’s been over-over-prolific. While five studio albums in 10 years doesn’t sound like one hell of an output, the truth is that she’s been involved in so many side projects, either with her country band The Little Willies, or guesting with legends like Ray Charles, Willie Nelson and Herbie Hancock, or with contemporary biggies like Foo Fighters, Outkast and Ryan Adams.
Some of these interactions have been extraordinary — her rendition of the country standard ‘Here We Go Again’ with Ray Charles in 2004 was a highlight of the latter’s Grammy-winning album ‘Genius Loves Company’, and three of her duets with Willie Nelson (‘Wurlitzer Prize’, ‘Dreams Come True’ and ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’) have been nominated for the Grammy. However, too much work at the same time could probably have affected her output as a solo singer, which she primarily is.
If one looks at her career progression, her second 2004 solo album ‘Feels Like Home’ was just the ideal follow-up, with beauties like ‘Sunrise’, ‘What Am I To You?’ and ‘In The Morning’. It sold really well too. So did the next album ‘Not Too Late’, with ‘Thinking About You’ and the title song dominating the airwaves. Reviews were, however, mixed, as Norah essentially stuck to the same formula.
The follow-up ‘The Fall’, featuring ‘Chasing Pirates’ and ‘Young Blood’, saw a little more experimentation in sound, but with her singing style not changing much, audiences felt she was getting repetitive. In fact, it was between Albums 3 and 4 that some critics named her ‘Snorah Jones’ — which was actually unfair.
This is where one thought her idea to team up with Danger Mouse was a masterstroke. But rather than concentrating on this album totally, Norah chose to be associated with the second Little Willies album ‘For The Good Times’, which was released just four months before this one.
Norah didn’t write on the Willies recording, and did some wonderful versions of Dolly Parton’s ‘Joulene’, ‘Willie Nelson’s ‘Permanently Lonely’, Kris Kristofferson’s ‘For The Good Times’, Johnny Cash’s ‘Wipe Open Road’ and Loretta Lynn’s ‘Fist City’. But perhaps, the pressure of simultaneously working on two major projects made a difference.
A factor affecting Norah’s current output is her early overwhelming stardom. Like Alanis Morisette, Alicia Keys, India.Arie and Susan Boyle, her dream debut has forced most listeners to compare her newer work with the first hit. But think of it this way — if ‘The Fall’ or ‘Little Broken Hearts’ had been her debut, we may have reacted differently, instead of cribbing that these albums marked her ‘fall’ or left us a ‘little broken-hearted’.
Of course, it’s easy to criticise Norah Jones, simply by comparing everything she does now with what she did in ‘Come Away With Me’. The truth is that today, she is a household name, popular across age groups. While youngsters identify with her youth, looks and innocence, the elders are enamoured by her style of composing and singing —laidback, sensuous and intoxicating. She’s bridged the worlds of jazz and pop, and very few singers sound like her.
Maybe Norah should focus on one thing at a time. Maybe she should be a little more selective, doing whatever she does really well, instead of trying to please everybody by keeping up with all varieties of Joneses.