Norah Jones | Pick Me Up Off the Floor | (Blue Note)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars
Sometimes the leftovers are as good, and perhaps better, than the main course they came from. That’s the general concept behind Norah Jones’ first album in four years. An EP from 2019 collected some recent singles.
These songs were never meant to comprise a project but as Jones listened to some of the material she recorded but didn’t release on her previous EP, she found they were worth revisiting and issuing. It was a smart move.
The first impression when spinning these eleven tracks is that it’s another pleasant, pretty standard Norah Jones set. The subdued piano-driven tunes find that unique space she has carved out between jazz, pop, blues, country and gospel without explicitly sounding like any of those. Her plush, instantly recognizable, mellifluous voice carries the supple melodies and, to her credit, she doesn’t push it past her range.
But repeated plays and closer inspection show Jones expanding her envelope by adding subtle yet effective horns, pedal steel, violin, string arrangements and backing vocals. These embellishments are woven seamlessly through the overall reserved mood, enhancing and stretching the predominately stark instrumentation into often dark places that occasionally even dip into experimental waters.
Lyrically, Jones shifts to a poetic, less clearly defined artistic approach, inspired and assisted by poet Emily Fiskio who gets a co-writing credit on “Were You Watching,” the disc’s creepiest entry. On “Flame Twin” Jones sings “Can’t see/Past the border or smoke/My twin, enflamed/Who I’m sorry I woke” emphasized by Pete Remm’s edgy, twisting rock guitar sneaking around the borders.
For “Say No More,” Jones brings a jaunty rhythm to the disturbing concept of “Take the bullet out of that gun/I’ll bare you my soul/Everything you want to know/Swallow me up whole” with her alternately tinkling and more forceful piano lines sparring with trumpet and saxophone. “This life as we know it is over,” she softly sings in her typically unruffled croon over skeletal piano backing. Certainly written before the current pandemic was even on the radar, those words, meant to look at a troubled relationship, can be applied to the world’s current distressed state.
The dichotomy of Jones’ softer touch with material subtly flowing into darker, more ominous territory and instrumentation that expands her palette into moodier areas provides Pick Me Off the Floor with its tensest moments. Perhaps she hasn’t gone far enough since the tone of the ballad-heavy album could use a little more juice to mix things up. But the eclectic, always classy Jones tweaks even the most unruffled tracks here with enough of an edge to keep things interesting.
That makes most of these “leftovers” arguably as tasty as the main course.
Photo: Diane Russo