The Review of Norah


And it came to pass that in the new millennium, the son and his retainers rose up out of Texas, and the Court decreed they could ascend the throne of the Capital of Politics, and then there was a great calamity and the people were afraid. And some pundits found the words and actions of this ruler reassuring, while other pundits worried of new dangers, saying, “What is Texas, if it can produce such men?”

And at this same time a young woman also came from Texas to the Capital of Culture in the East, humbly seeking naught but friends and work in jazz clubs and a contract with a small prestigious record label. And she was beautiful and unpretentious and had this voice and could play the piano tastefully and knew of Hoagy Carmichael and Hank Williams. And the wise old men at Blue Note understood that she was onto something, and they brought in Arif Mardin and some real jazz musicians but not too many and allowed the young woman to sing and play with her unknown but talented young friends, and they brought forth a masterpiece.

Come Away With Me began to sell as well as any Blue Note record ever, and then it sold as well as any record in the world. And the people said, “Yes, this young woman reassures us, for she has lived in Texas and New York and she knows about both jazz and country and she knows about what’s old and new, and no one else can sing like her and so we shall buy 6 million copies.” And there was grumbling that she was only popular with those who were so old they wouldn’t download, or too dumb to like good jazz, or too conservative for hip-hop. But young women loved her, and Bruce Lundvall backed her up, and Andre 3000 knew that she was good and had her sing on track 19 of The Love Below.

For she had a voice that was subtle and accessible, yet sexy and sophisticated; naive, yet proficient. And when she played the piano she embellished that voice with licks that referenced Floyd Cramer and Nat Cole and the other instruments never overwhelmed her but were added sparingly with great effect. She and her friends wrote songs both strange and simple with interesting hooks and phrases that sounded like a little bit of jazz and rock, and her voice washed o’er the land.

And so the young woman and her friends went out to tour, but they were too popular for clubs and had to play large halls. And the recording industry was overjoyed and gave her many golden statues and even gave one to Jesse Harris, who wrote her catchy but ambiguous hit single, and he signed with another small prestigious record label and went back to his own band. And then she started on her second record and the people worried. Could it be as good; would so much fame so early make her lose her bearings like Lauryn Hill or Karen Carpenter? How could she maintain that cozy closeness now that she’d won awards and played large halls? But the wise men at Blue Note knew that she was smart and talented and said, “We must be patient, for she has already helped us make so much money we have signed Van Morrison and Al Green.”

So she gathered round her boyfriend and the other members of her band, and didn’t use Jesse Harris or the jazz musicians from her first recording but brought in Garth Hudson and Levon Helm. And Feels Like Home was more country and folk-rock and sounded less like jazz and lost urban feel. There were conceits and phrases that felt forced and the songs by Townes Van Zandt and Tom Waits and the duet with Dolly Parton didn’t fit as well. But “Carnival Town” and “Humble Me” and “The Prettiest Thing” were odd and interesting and there were still those hooky mellow moments and the catchy upbeat opener and the closer with her lyrics to Duke Ellington’s “Melancholia,” just the piano and that voice. For the voice remained as confident and open as before. And if the choice of songs and beat and instrumentation were sometimes restrictive, still the piano and the voice endured, and the people knew the young woman had survived her fame and would continue. And the critic wondered whether she could become another Willie Nelson and worried that she suffered from Ryan Adams envy and hoped she knew she could become the one Diana Krall, Cassandra Wilson, and Gillian Welch prefigured.

And so the people were relieved, for there were others at that time who were unable to sustain their fame. And in the Capital of Politics were those who sought to bind Texas and New York in fear and anger. But across the land were many who believed the young woman showed there was another way, and she was just beginning so the path was not yet clear. All they knew was that her metaphoric mother Carole King was singing for a senator from Massachusetts.

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