Escaping a world of traffic jams, annoying ringtones and constant multi-tasking is easy to do when you slip on a Norah Jones CD. The challenge is to stay awake long enough to catch the pleasant subtleties of her style. Her seductive, dusky voice melts into the hushed, measured, all-acoustic arrangements, creating decorous but often sleep-inducing music. This week, the eight-time Grammy winner released yet another woolly blanket of an album: Not Too Late.
As expected, Jones sticks to the relaxed, coffeehouse-friendly formula that sold 30 million copies of her other two CDs: 2002's Come Away With Me and 2004's Feels Like Home. This time, though, the lush, glossy feel of her previous efforts is gone. And that's probably because Arif Mardin is no longer around. The legendary producer, who oversaw Jones' first two albums, died in June. Instead, Not Too Late - overseen by Jones' live-in boyfriend, bassist Lee Alexander - is looser, if still quiet and hopelessly languid. There's an almost demo-like feel to the album's 13 songs, all of which Jones either wrote or co-wrote.
That's another thing that sets this record apart from the others: The dark-eyed Texas beauty doesn't dip into a bag of hoary pop standards. No torchy Hoagy Carmichael tunes this time. Not Too Late showcases more of her tentative but sometimes impressive songwriting. (Four self-penned cuts graced Feels Like Home, Come Away With Me had two.)
Jones shines when the subject is dark. Check the rustic stomp of "Sinkin' Soon" and this thinly veiled swipe at President Bush: "In a boat that's built of sticks and hay/We drifted from the shore/With a captain who's too proud to say/That he dropped the oar." She drizzles more vinegar with the slightly awkward "My Dear Country": "I love the things that you've given me/I cherish you, my dear country/But sometimes I don't understand/The way we play." This is several lines after she ponders whether the president is "deranged."
The album's surefire standout is "Thinking About You," a crawling, lovesick number with a rolling, country-soul backbeat, a smooth Wurlitzer solo (courtesy of Jones) and glorious, ebbing horn lines reminiscent of vintage Al Green. But nothing else on the album comes close to matching that precious puff of energy. Everything else slides into the ultra-mellow, slightly twangy formula Jones usually works.
The music won't get in the way. It won't even prompt you to move. Though it may not be her intention, Jones reminds us with her new album that it's not too late to disconnect from the madness and just drift away.