Album of the Week: Feels Like Home, Norah Jones

Back in 2002, Norah Jones put out her first album, Come Away With Me. If you were anywhere near an NPR station at that time, you definitely heard about it. It was pretty tough to escape it, actually—the album won eight Grammys and has sold 26 million copies.

Then she had to put out another album, 2004’s Feels Like Home. It didn’t sit great with all the critics—The New York Times gave it a pretty middling review, as did my mother (“I don’t like it. It’s too country!”). But I am here to defend Feels Like Home: this is an album of growth for Jones, and an important marker of things to come.

The Band is all over this record—not Jones’ band, but the Band, the ‘70s rock group. Levon Helm plays drums on the unrepentantly bluesy “What Am I To You,” which is heavy on electric guitars and fuzzy electric piano. “Be Here to Love Me,” represents a similar sonic departure from Jones’ first album, with some mournful R&B guitar licks courtesy of Adam R. Levy, and bizarrely, an accordion, played by another former member of the Band, Garth Hudson. Whether done as a conscious gesture or not, the presence of both Hudson and Helm indicates that Jones is moving in a very different musical circle from the more straight-ahead lounge jazz of Come Away With Me, and Feels like Home is situated in the same modern Americana sound that the Band channeled in their heyday.

Speaking of Americana and stylistic departures, Dolly Parton sings on track six, “Creepin’ In.” Just let that pairing sink in for a minute: the woman sang “Don’t Know Why” duetting with a woman who has her own amusement park. Parton’s high harmonies and exuberance add a lot to this track, which is the most animated on the disk. A particularly fun bluegrass-style breakdown starts at the 1:17 mark, though the solo is funkier and stretchier than most bluegrass breaks.

Jones still retains her gift for emotional delivery, as the heartbreaking “Humble Me” attests. It’s a quiet, stark production, reminiscent of some of the latter half of Lyle Lovett’s album The Road to Ensenada.

The solo acoustic guitar makes segues from “Humble Me” to “Above Ground,” which is a tense piece propelled mostly by harmonically unresolved slide guitar licks. Jones exercises her piano on a solo around the 3:08 mark, sounding appropriately in the pocket.

“The Long Way Home” is the real end of this disk as a comprehensive musical statement. The loping guitar part is classic Country & Western, and Jones reads Kathleen Brennan and Tom Waits’ lyrics perfectly.

The two final tracks, “The Prettiest Thing” and “Don’t Miss You at All,” while—pardon me—pretty, are big departures from the rest of the album. I can almost hear someone at the record company mandating that they be stuck on to the end of the record so people would still know it was a Norah Jones album. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, despite what the New York Times (and my mother) think.