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Come Away With Us: Norah Jones at the Lyric Opera House, March 30

March 31, 2010
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Norah Jones has a genuine gift, but she doesn’t seem to grasp what it is. She has the ability to be the next Linda Ronstadt or Emmylou Harris—a strikingly beautiful woman with a strikingly beautiful voice that can imbue the most familiar songs with a new flush of feeling. Unfortunately, she seems to think she is an important singer-songwriter, the next Joni Mitchell, which she most definitely is not.

These issues came into focus when Jones celebrated her 31st birthday at the Lyric Opera House Tuesday night (with a rousing audience sing-along of “Happy Birthday” conducted by back-up singer and opening act Sasha Dobson). When Jones sang her own compositions from her second, third, and fourth solo albums, the results were pleasant, tasteful, and underwhelming. But when she turned to songs penned by someone else (Rodney Crowell’s “Bullrider,” Ray Davies’ “Strangers,” or Jesse Harris’s “Don’t Know Why”) or songs she had written with someone else (“Light as a Feather” with Ryan Adams or “How Many Times [Have You Broken My Heart]” posthumously with Hank Williams), the show suddenly clicked into a sharper focus.

It was easy to understand why. Jones, fetching in red heels and a black, shoulder-less party dress, displayed a plummy, seductive tone full of vowels that seemed to melt into the next syllable. When she sang one of her own, underdeveloped songs, the luscious vowels and neglected consonants allowed the tunes to grow shapeless and vague. But when she grabbed hold of a number with a sharply defined melody and succinct catch phrase, all the structure she needed was already provided and her voice hummed with a tenderness that put flesh on those bones.

It’s true that Jones has written the occasional gem—the title track from her 2002 debut Come Away with Me, “Sunrise” from her second album, Feels Like Home, and “Back to Manhattan” from her latest release, last autumn’s The Fall. She did all three Tuesday night, and they fit in well with the covers, but one memorable song every few years does not make you a songwriter. Jones needs to come to terms with the fact that she is much stronger as a song interpreter than as a singer-songwriter.

She has good taste in outside writers, and she has good taste in musicians. On Tuesday, her sextet was highlighted by rootsy guitarist Smokey Hormel—best known for his work with Beck, Tom Waits, and John Doe—who lit up more than one song with a crisply constructed solo. But Jones seems to even be confused about her own instrumental strengths. For much of the show she strummed an electric guitar, adding little to the guitars of Hormel and Dobson. But when she sat down at the piano, her smart phrasing and inventive fills added a lot. We know every pop star wants to be out front where the audience can see one’s entire body, but shouldn’t the music come first?

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