"Not Too Late," Norah Jones
If you go outside today and happen to see two suns in the sky and feel the ground shaking beneath your feet, it isn't the apocalypse -- it's something infinitely more important. Cue booming God voice: Norah Jones has a new album out.
The physically petite and musically demure Jones is arguably the most successful pop star going right now, having won eight Grammys and sold more than 14 million copies of her first two albums. Simply put, the arrival of "Not Too Late" is one of the musical events of the year, a succor for millions of fans and burdened with the weight of an industry thirsty for a big hit record. How has Jones responded to such lofty expectations?
By pretty much ignoring them. Even though "Not Too Late" is Jones' first album to consist primarily of her own songwriting, the hallmarks of her Starbucks-friendly sound haven't changed: Jones' smoky, drawled vocals still waft over slow to midtempo songs played on hushed, mostly acoustic instruments. Just like the earlier work, "Not Too Late" is a triumph of mood. There are no unforgettable riffs or infectious rhythms. The laid-back, horn-goosed Southern soul of "Think About You" features the closest thing the album has to a memorable chorus -- the rest is implication. Melodies insinuate, grooves sneak up on you, the instrumentalists would rather die than do anything flashy. It speaks to Jones' mastery at creating such a relaxed, inviting ambience that music this bashful has drawn the attention of so many people.
Without reading the liner notes, you'd be hard-pressed to tell that Jones had a hand in writing all the songs this time around. While both "Sinkin' Soon" and "My Dear Country" hint at a slightly sinister Kurt Weill/cabaret influence, everything else would sound at home next to her earlier covers of material by folks like Hank Williams, Hoagy Carmichael and Tom Waits. That sonic consistency, I'm afraid, has more to do with how any hint of idiosyncrasy is smoothed over by Jones' insistence on reducing every song to a crawling tempo and giving them the same drifting vocal style. She's a dominatrix of decorum, bending any song to her whims, difference be damned.
Though "Not Too Late" doesn't extend or elaborate on Jones' gifts, it doesn't diminish them either. Her voice is a beautiful instrument: warm, sexy and wonderfully controlled. As rigid as they are, her musical choices never feel calculated, either. A trained jazz pianist, Jones has the ability to play all kinds of music, but quiet and slow is what she does, and she does it well. In our fast, noisy world, it should come as no surprise that so many people love her for it.
Favorite track: "Thinking About You"
"Some Loud Thunder," Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
In 2005, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah eschewed the normal record-biz model and sold 50,000 copies of its self-released first album solely on the strength of a determined DIY work ethic and some positive blog buzz. Album No. 2 might earn the Brooklyn-based band some much-needed rest -- this is music that should have no trouble finding an audience. "Some Loud Thunder" is full of awkwardly constructed and restlessly melodic indie rock, all knees and elbows. But unlike another awkward band, the Talking Heads -- a frequent comparison, as singer Alec Ounsworth sounds like David Byrne -- the band's music feels enthusiastic and exploratory rather than anxious and neurotic. The group treats songs like Legos, building them up, tearing them down and constantly looking for new ways to put them back together. On "Mama, Won't You Keep Those Castles in the Air & Burning," over a dour ebb and flow of keyboards, a thumping drumbeat and some acoustic guitars, Ounsworth sings a line that could be his band's motto: "Why settle down? Why even try?"
Favorite track: "Emily Jean Stock"
"Alright, Still" Lily Allen
Lily Allen, the daughter of well-known English comedian Keith Allen, parlayed her enormous MySpace popularity (128,421 "friends" at the time I'm writing this) into a huge push from the music press for her debut album, which has included being named as the "No. 1 reason to love 2007" by Blender. And as much as it pains me to praise a massively hyped celebrity offspring, Allen deserves the acclaim: "Alright, Still" is a deliriously enjoyable mix of pop, R&B and reggae whose unabashedly snotty, funny and smart lyrics make supposedly strong female figures like Gwen Stefani and Fergie sound like timid phonies.
Favorite track: "Smile"