Give her a break-it’s not Norah Jones’ fault your mom played her debut, Come Away With Me, ten times a day. Or that nine million SUV owners bought it. Or that every wine bar and vegetarian restaurant in America kept it on repeat for a year. I mean, Jones drinks beer and loves lamb. And she made a sweet little record: chilled-out melodies, easy, sexy voice, short on corn. When Andre 3000 wanted to snuggle up for an acoustic fireside duet on OutKast’s The Love Below, who’d he pick? Case closed.
Jones’ follow-up is, in fact, a better record than Come Away-less piano bar, more honky-tonk. She invites Dolly Parton and a couple of graybeards from the Band to sit in; she covers Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt beautifully, does some cozy originals, and is brave enough to pen lyrics (elegant ones, in fact) to a Duke Ellington theme. Still, at times you wish Feels Like Home felt more like somewhere else. Her trip-hop sessions with Wax Poetic, her cover of Irma Thomas’ “Ruler of My Heart” with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and her collabo with ‘Dre have all shown a rangier personality than we see here. Guess it’s hard to fiddle with formula when you’ve got a closet full of Grammys. But, as her accountants will no doubt tell you, Jones is financially set to do whatever she wants. Time will tell, and since she’s only 25, it’s on her side.
A freshman to Jones’ upperclassman, 19-year-old Nellie McKay has a serious case of look-at-me: Her debut is a double-disc set with a title that goofs on Jones’ debut-just in case you missed the fact that McKay, like Jones, is a precocious New York City piano gal coloring pop with jazz and nostalgia with now. But their approaches couldn’t be more different. Where Jones never breaks her mannered woo, McKay veers between cabaret comedy (“Yeah, I’ll have my coffee black / Hey look, we’re bombing Iraq”) and piano-student rock rebellion à la Fiona Apple and Tori Amos. She even raps, sort of: “Sari” is the unlikeliest mix of Broadway shtick and hip-hop since Jigga’s “Hard Knock Life.” But the record could use more songs like “David,” where her bratty valedictorian wit is balanced with a sense of real emotional stakes. In truth, Jones and McKay might learn a lot from each other. Hey, ladies-tag-team piano at your old shared haunt, the Living Room? Drinks on me. I’m serious.