Norah Jones is a frustrating artist to pin down. Industry types always want to bag her as a jazz artist, but she’s turned her hand a pretty much everything – Country, Americana, Blues. There’s her tongue-in-cheek indie-rock band El Madmo and her honey-sweet doo-wop Garage outfit Puss ‘N’ Boots. A quick scout of the web and glamour mags will show she’s keen on manipulating her image, too. As she does again on the cover of this album, which hints at sultry, sexy 70’s soul vibe. Yet ‘Pick Me Up Off the Floor’, her seventh solo studio album, is not really that kind of thing.
Jones has always been open to trying new things, with her song writing process gone from what she once described as the work of herself a “nervous songwriter” to completely fearless following her collaboration with Dangermouse (aka Brian Burton). As a result, she often goes into song writing collaborations with no pre-prepared material. She and various song writing partners just “throw stuff at the wall.” But it works: “We come out with stuff that I’m totally in love with.” Pick Me Up Off the Floor is the most convincing proof yet that these methods are really working.
Some may argue her material has been a bit variable over the years but listening to this one, you’d have to agree this particular journey from hurt and doubt to satisfaction and contentment is likely her best work in over ten years.
Her song writing process, as she explains in her own blogs, has undergone a complete change in the past few years. From having been, as she has described herself, a “nervous songwriter”, the collaboration with Brian (Dangermouse) Burton on the album “Little Broken Hearts” opened new doors creatively for her: “His process opened me up to no-fear song writing,” she has said. These days she goes into song writing collaborations with no pre-prepared material. She and various song writing partners just “throw stuff at the wall.” But it works: “We come out with stuff that I’m totally in love with.” “Pick Me Up Off the Floor” is the most convincing proof yet that these methods are really working.
Musically, the album has a beguiling range of moods and vibes, from rockabilly and Americana, via Lucinda Williams, in “Say No More” to a more classy, radiant early Peyroux style jazz number “Stumble on My Way.” Sometimes there’s gentle, reflective vibe in her piano intros, which remind me the way Abdullah Ibrahim plays. Exhibit A: ”Were You Watching” starts softly, in this mode, then builds carefully, into an inescapable, anthemic groove. Mazz Swift’s violin playing is quite sublime here and elevates the song perfectly.
Or try the elegantly paced “Heartbroken, Day After”. I can see that one become a lounge bar classic down the line, with or without Michelle Pfeiffer draped across a Steinway. Sure, it’s slow and swaggering, but feels so effortless, something Jones does best, when at the height of her powers.
Worthy of mention is “How I Weep”, which is held together by a simple repeating coda of bass notes from an acoustic guitar, punctuated by gentle and repetitive staccato strings, that fall like raindrops onto further washes from of violin and cello. The gypsy violin swirls at the end are a perfectly mesmerising way round off the conclusion.
The album’s grooviest track is “Flame Twin”, which hangs off a deft, 60’s jazz funk. The warm bass, Jones’ naturally smoky vocals and smattering of gospel style-Rhodes keyboard in the background all make this the most soulful track on this album.
You get a mattering on honky-tonk in the staggering blues on “Heartbroken, Day After”. But unlike the usual blues numbers, this is full of decorum and style, like a lover after a breakup, dumped at the opera house door, returning home, rejected yet still perfectly made up and holding one head high.
The album’s closer “Heaven Above”, is the better of the two written in collaboration with Jeff Tweedy. You can always tell a ‘Tweedy’, a slightly desperate, cleverly constructed, full of melancholy and just a snifter of irony. A clever regard for metaphor is well in evidence: I’m lonely/ ‘Cause I’m looking at pictures of you/ While I listen to snow/ Being pushed off of the roof.” Old relationships are discarded like dirty snow, into the gutter. The walk is shovelled clean, memories erased, new paths opened. In the music, the blended guitar-scapes and piano drift in and out like gentle winter weather flurries. But it’s the long spaces between notes that create the delicious sense of calm and zen.
As with all her albums we reviewers want to unpick every line and every chord change. Jones doesn’t play that game. Sometimes, she wants to stay illusive, let the listener figure it out for themselves. She’s notorious for playing up when asked, avoiding the answer or replying with more questions. That makes everything more elusive, don’t you think?
Sure, this album was completed before Covid-19 came out. And thanks to streaming, we can enjoy it now, rather than waiting months for a physical product to arrive. Concerts won’t be happening soon, though. Sadly. Which is a shame because the musicianship, her voice and all the subtilties you can hear on this long player would be so much better on stage. Her group are fantastic. Bassist Chris Thomas and drummer Brian Blade add the perfect accompaniments, flavourful, but never overpowering. They play like jazz-men but swing like a rock band.
This album sounds great but nothing could beat it as live performance. Hopefully, we’ll get to hear this in the not too distant future.
This first appeared at: https://www.ambientlightblog.com/album-review-norah-jones-pick-me-up-off-the-floor/