Today on Blogcritics
Home » Nattering On Norah

Nattering On Norah

Please Share...Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Facebook0Share on Google+0Share on LinkedIn0Pin on Pinterest0Share on TumblrShare on StumbleUpon0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone

The NY Times is collectively pondering mightily the meaning of the million-selling success of Norah Jones’s new album Feels Like Home. First, in an unsigned editorial published yesterday, they spend most of their words trying to get around damning sweet Norah with faint praise:

    Norah Jones is a lovely young woman with a lovely young voice who sings jazz-inflected songs of romance in a manner that can only be called consoling. Her first album, “Come Away With Me,” earned her a double armful of Grammys last year and the attention of the entire music industry. Her second album, “Feels Like Home,” has just been released. It made its debut at No. 1 and sold more than a million copies in its first week, proving that politeness does have its rewards. The sound of Ms. Jones’s piano is amiability itself, and in her voice there lurks a plaintive contentment. It feels churlish to speak even that critically of a woman whose music is so palpably pleasing. Who knew so many people needed so much consolation?

    ….The psychology of the recording industry, like that of book publishing, is now so dependent on blockbuster sales that the idea of profitability based on modest sales across a diverse catalog has nearly vanished. The business depends on the hundred-year flood, not a steady rain.

    There is no begrudging Ms. Jones her success. Part of her attraction is that she seems to be pursuing the art as it appeals to her, without pandering to her audience. But what’s curious about her career so far is that she is essentially a midlist artist who broke into the big time. Her first album was rolled out in a way that suggested modest expectations – and on such modest, artful expectations, once upon a time, a gratifying career might have been based. But her niche is now the whole world. The industry will no longer be talking about Norah Jones; it will be talking about “a Norah Jones” or “the next Norah Jones,” who comes out of nowhere to rescue the bottom line once again.

I am still trying to figure out what they are saying here, with a bunch of nice-but-unenthusiastic stuff about Norah before saying what they really think, that “she is essentially a midlist artist who broke into the big time.”

Just because her chosen approach is quiet and subtle doesn’t mean she isn’t a major talent, or that her success is somehow a fluke. She is all kinds of interesting things: a young woman performing music that largely appeals to an older audience; she is lovely and sexy but in a modest, unassuming manner in an age of in-your-face pop strumpets; she is as deep as the Marianas Trench while her surface remains calm; she has a unique, warm, soulful voice and is a real musician.

These attributes add up to a genuine phenomenon that belongs at the head of the ‘list,” not the middle, unless the head is reserved for flash, and I find it hard to believe the NY Times is too stupid to see that.

Their point about the music industry relying on hits is certainly valid, but give Blue Note credit for working Norah as well as it did: much more like a steady rain over the course of a year than a brief deluge. Maybe the industry has learned something from the success of this atavistic approach, and will be willing to market releases in a more sustained, somewhat subtler manner. At least give credit where credit is due.

Norah is also at the center of a Chris Nelson music business report today:

    For the last three years, bad news about the music industry has been as steady as a synthesized drumbeat. But a turnaround that began quietly last fall has become unmistakable with the success of Norah Jones’s new album, “Feels Like Home.” The CD, which recently sold more than a million copies in its first week in stores, helped extend a nearly consistent five-month string of industry growth, as measured by weekly sales compared with year-earlier periods.

    So why are so few people in the music world ready to celebrate an industry comeback?

    “The past four or five months has turned the predictive ability of all of us on its head,” said Michael Nathanson, an investment analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Company who specializes in the music business. “I think people are holding their breath.”

    ….First-week sales of Ms. Jones’s new album were only part of the industry’s good news for seven-day period that ended Feb. 15. Through that period, the most recent for which data are available, album sales for the beginning of 2004 were up 13 percent from the comparable period of 2003, according to Nielsen SoundScan, which tracks music sales.

    It was the biggest Valentine’s Day sales week since SoundScan began operating in 1991. And it was also the first week ever in which downloaded song sales topped two million.

    Several factors are at work in the rising sales figures, Mr. Nathanson said. For starters, by the end of 2002 and the beginning of 2003, CD sales had dropped so significantly that they were easy to top. This year’s growth of 13 percent for the first six weeks compares with a decline of 3.6 percent in the corresponding period last year.

    Last fall also benefited from a strong release schedule, with albums that became hits from the rappers OutKast and Ludacris; the pop singers Ruben Studdard, Rod Stewart and Josh Groban; and the rocker Sheryl Crow. Price cuts have also helped; some major-label albums now sell for closer to $10 than the nearly $20 that was formerly the industry standard.

    Artists who appeal to music-buying baby boomers – like Ms. Jones; Mr. Stewart; the former Doobie Brother, Michael McDonald; and the retro-crooner Harry Connick Jr. – continue to contribute a significant portion of overall sales. And Universal, for one, is hoping boomers flock to CD’s due this year from Stevie Wonder and Elton John.

    The success of “Feels Like Home” by Ms. Jones, the follow-up to “Come Away with Me,” her 2002 debut album, which sold eight million copies, bodes well for the industry, said Bruce Lundvall, the president and chief executive for jazz and classics at EMI Music, which owns the Blue Note label on which Ms. Jones records. Until recently, “there’s been an awful lot of trash out there,” Mr. Lundvall said, “and I think a lot of people are disenfranchised.”

    While the music labels have tended to blame Internet music sharing and CD copying for the slump of the last three years, the industry’s critics have cited high CD prices and substandard music as the real reasons that annual album sales fell to 687 million units by last year, down by almost 100 million units, or 12.5 percent, from 2000.

Good job Chris, you can’t repeat that often enough in the face of the industry’s constant whine about file sharing.

    Recording executives realize that it will take more than a Norah Jones album to bring stability back to the industry. That is why, in the months ahead, executives will be closely watching the public’s reaction to albums from Janet Jackson, Avril Lavigne and the Beastie Boys, among others.

    “The sense from both labels and retail is a desire to be cautiously optimistic,” said Rob Sisco, the president of Nielsen Music, which operates SoundScan. “And I can understand that because we’re coming off of very severe times.”

Oh, you’re not out of it yet, but higher quality and lower prices will make a big difference in sales, especially with adults.

Powered by

About Eric Olsen

  • Robert Brandt

    Are we right in the middle another post-traumatic era in the music industry? Are we seeing stuff in the style of “easy” favorites like Bread, The Carpenters, or James Taylor getting big again?

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    the inability of people to deal with the subtleties of Jones’ voice continues to puzzle me.

    i feel like i’m being snobby when i say this, but i can’t help but think that the average person’s attention span has been flogged to the point where entertainment (music in this case) of this nature just doesn’t register anymore.

  • ClubhouseCancer

    Or perhaps her songs are hopelessly banal. Her approach is consistently pleasant and never challenging — much more soft-rock than any kind of jazz, and her songs are just boring and trivial and forgettable.

    For similar, much more intricate and involving stuff in this vein, I urge you to check out the past five Cassandra Wilson albums. Much of Norah’s sounds come from these much better, much more emotive albums— try New Moon Daughter or Travelling Miles.

  • Eric Olsen

    CC, damn you get snide. I am not aware that anyone here is calling her “jazz.” She is “jazzy,” and the new one is less jazzy than the first one. The comparison with Wilson is specious – they do entirely different things.

    Who says more “intricate” is more “involving”? What you hear as “never challenging,” I hear as subtle and deep. “Emotive” is better? I typically hate “emotive.” Christina Aguilera and Celine Dion are “emotive.”

    I find Norah neither “boring,” nor “trivial,” nor “forgettable,” in fact quite the opposite on all three.

    Should I be equally dismissive of your opinion? Should I say you just don’t get it? Should I say your label of “soft rock” reveals an inability to hear the disparate influences she has drawn from – sophisticated country, folk, jazz, traditional pop, blues (especially on the new one) – to create somthing uniquesly hers?

    You are free to express any opinion you’d like, but I do not get the attitude: surely anyone who might possibly disagree is an idiot.

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    norah herself has said in interviews that as much as she’d like to emulate here piano hero, Bill Evans, what seems to come out is more country-ish.

    as far as a comparison to wilson goes, hey, this ain’t a competition. i love both New Moon Daught and Travelling Miles…are they “better” than “Feels Like Home”. i have no idea. i’m not keeping score.

  • ClubhouseCancer

    Eric:
    Wow. Didn’t know I needed a special waiver to disagree with you, but thanks for granting me said permission.
    We obviously don’t agree on the merits of this banausic music, but one statement of yours is truly puzzling.
    Cassandra and Norah Jones clearly do NOT do totally different things, as you, strangely, state.
    They both choose country/pop-tinged tunes. They use jazz musicians. (Some of the SAME musicians.)
    They both play the tunes, as a rule, slowly and quietly, with a lack of adornment.
    They both record for Blue Note.
    They also share a key producer, Craig Street, who recorded the basic tracks for the first Norah album.
    A cursory listen to both would reveal that there are obvious similarities.

    To me, the Cassandra albums are deeper, as the singer sounds more engaged, and the recordings are weirder and denser. They’re also much more dynamic, with hushed, gently swinging parts juxtaposed with harder driving stuff.

    In short, the Norah albums sound like Cassandra albums with a sweeter singer and the rough edges smoothed out.

    And Mark, Norah may say that her fave is Bill Evans, but, as she knows, that piano is pure Floyd Cramer Slip-Note 101. Sounds great, too.

  • David

    I just remember this LA times article a way back claiming that she got signed to Blue Note because of her impressive jazz ability, and there were all kinds of quotes from teachers and whatnot raving about her extraordinary natural talent, and, besides, she’s got her daddy’s jeans, but after she got signed she decided she was interested in other things. I figure she’s young yet – not for pop, maybe, but definitely for jazz.

    Cassandra: nice voice – that’s about it. I liked the album she did with Jackie Terrason a lot, and her contribution to Blood on the Fields was pleasant enough, but here pop stuff leave me as cold as ice. There are plenty of jazz singers out there who are much better in every way.

  • Eric Olsen

    CC, I think I made it pretty clear that I wasn’t complaining about disagreement – which is NEVER an issue – but about the tone and attitude. I am certain such a perceptive and meticulous reader such as yourself will see the vast difference between #3 and #6.

    As to the merits, interesting comparison between Wilson and Jones, including commonalities I hadn’t grasped, but the fundamental difference is between a jazz singer and a not-jazz singer: for Wilson, the jazz singer, it’s all about the performance; for Jones, the not-jazz singer, it’s all about the song.

    Wilson is Billie Holiday, Jones is Peggy Lee; commonalities but fundamental difference.

  • ClubhouseCancer

    David:
    I agree. Just brought up the Cassandra albums as obvious precursors to this. I thought the Terrasson album was disappointingly bland, though.