Everyone, it seems, works with Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse), eventually: Damon Albarn (in Gorillaz and the Good, the Bad and the Queen), the Rapture, the Black Keys, Beck, Cee-Lo Green (in Gnarls Barkley), the Shins' James Mercer (as Broken Bells), and now, reportedly, both John Cale and U2. It's just a matter of time.
Superstar Norah Jones, the latest Danger Mouse collaborator, first worked with Burton in 2008, when she contributed vocals to Rome, his tribute to Italian film scores, and at the time they agreed to work together again in the near future. But it took awhile; Jones subsequently toured behind her 2009 record The Fall, and Burton went on tour with Broken Bells. They finally reconnected, spending about two months coming up with and recording material for Little Broken Hearts. Released in May, the album was hailed by critics as an important record for Jones. It debuted at #2 on the Billboard Top 200.
By phone from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., Jones said that, although she worked closely with Burton through the whole process, there was never any concern in her mind that the finished product would end up sounding too much like a Danger Mouse record — like, say, Broken Bells with Norah Jones singing — and that she never felt a need to pull it back to more of her own aesthetic.
“All those projects that Brian does are collaborations,” Jones said. “He doesn't impose his ideas and sounds on anybody. I knew it was going to sound different because I would be working side-by-side with Brian. I don't think it sounds like those [Danger Mouse] records, and it's a specific marriage between my thing and his thing. I think it works really well.”
The 12 tracks on Little Broken Hearts, from the opener “Good Morning” to “All A Dream,” flow like a continuous meditation on love and relationship trouble, smartly drawing on (without overdoing) textures that have become Burton trademarks: washed-out plates of reverb, acoustic instruments mingling with electric ones, lush strings and bells and sumptuous grooves. There's a discernible (if unintentional) narrative running through the record; it doesn't take long to realize the protagonist's little broken heart got broken early on. There's little evidence anything was good in the relationship before it went bad. “Does she make you happy?” Jones repeats at the end of “She's 22,” a little less than halfway through Little Broken Hearts, and you glimpse what was once right. “I'd like to see you happy.” Back in the days of vinyl, this might have been a good place to flip the record; the short silence that follows the track feels inadequate.
You're free, of course, to listen to each track separately, but it's more enjoyable hearing the whole thing at one stretch. And Jones, who performs at the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford on July 2, agrees that that's the best way to hear it. “I know people don't listen to music that way anymore,” she said. “It's hard to represent the whole album just by playing a few songs.” She also doesn't hear many musical characteristics resulting from the way the pair worked — “spontaneously,” for lack of a better word. “It's less about the spontaneity than it is about working with Brian side-by-side... I've never labored over things. I've written quickly in the past.”
Working with another strong-willed musician like Burton, one might imagine, can be grueling. But Jones sees herself revisiting the process in the future if the conditions are right. “Yeah, I'd be open to it,” she said. “I learn from everything I do. But I don't know, it depends. I wouldn't want to work with someone like this if I wasn't really into them.”
Jones is certainly an established artist at this point in her career, which sometimes brings with it added pressures, self-imposed or otherwise, to re-establish oneself, to keep pace with earlier successes or to forge out in a new direction. But she feels none of that.
“Over the last 10 years, I've been surprised by the interesting things I do,” Jones said. “They fall into my lap, so I'm just going with it and enjoying it. I always try to do something new... How it fits into the big picture? I don't know... I had such a wonderful success in the beginning. I don't let [pressure] in. If it's there, it's not from me, and it's not from people who I try to listen to.”
Norah Jones, July 2, 7:30 p.m., $38-$58, Toyota Presents Oakdale, 95 South Turnpike Road, Wallingford, (203) 269-8721, oakdale.comCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun