On the lovely "Those Sweet Words," one of 13 tracks on Norah Jones's sophomore CD, she warmly sings, "I'm just glad to see you again." The feeling is mutual, Norah. On this much anticipated follow-up to Jones's Grammy-sweeping, 8-million-selling debut, 2002's Come Away with Me
, the singer-songwriter-pianist once again hits all the right notes with her smoky-voiced stylings. The disc, featuring some songs Jones and her band have already road-tested on tour last year, finds the 24-year-old continuing to be right at Home
with the classic sounds of jazz, blues, country and saloon pop. After the decidedly mellow mood of Come Away with Me, Jones kicks things off on a more upbeat tone with the shimmering "Sunrise." The song trots along with an easy gallop as Jones, at her sultry best, sings about seeing "morning in your eyes." Many of the tracks, like "Sunrise," have a rootsy country vibe. The foot-stomping "Creepin' In," which features an inspired guest vocal by Dolly Parton, with her trademark tremolo, and some neat picking by guitarist Kevin Breit, has an almost bluegrass feel. As with everything Jones does, however, these country accents are ever so subtle. In addition to 10 originals written by Jones and her touring band, which provides tasteful backing throughout, the album includes well-chosen covers of Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt tunes. Even better is Jones's reworking of the Duke Ellington instrumental "Melancholia," which she retitled "Don't Miss You at All," adding her own appropriately melancholy lyrics: "I hear children playin', laughin' so loud/ I don't think of your smile," she sings forlornly. The highlight, though, is "Humble Me," a delicate, resonator-guitar-laced ballad written by Breit. When Jones achingly sings, "It never rains when you want it to," you'll be humbled by her graceful, unassuming talent.
While College Dropout
is Kanye West
's freshman release, the Chicago native is hardly a rap rookie. As a producer, he was the beatmaster behind Jay-Z hits like "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" and " '03 Bonnie & Clyde." More recently, West produced Ludacris's "Stand Up," Alicia Keys's "You Don't Know My Name" and Twista's "Slow Jamz." The latter also demonstrated West's skills as a rapper and is featured on this disc, which rarely measures up to the best work he has done for other artists. West isn't as dynamic an emcee as, say, Jay-Z or Ludacris (which is evident on guest performances by both those artists). And the CD is bogged down with silly skits, including a few that decry the merits of higher education. Still, Dropout
showcases West's fresh production technique, involving creative use of old-school soul samples, such as the sped-up riffs from Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire" on "Through the Wire," which he recorded while his jaw was wired shut after a serious car accident: "There's been an accident like Geico/ They thought I was burnt up like Pepsi did Michael."
Morgan, who made her Grand Ole Opry debut at 13, is hardly a country ingenue anymore. But at 44, the singer is maturing with uncommon grace. Though she still sings with plenty of the sensuous zest that made her a star, she is taking advantage of the fact that her voice, while deepening and darkening with age, has also gotten warmer. And her sense of humor has sharpened, so that she can fittingly sing "Do You Still Wanna Buy Me That Drink (Frank)?" a clever song about a single mom fending off a bar pickup. She is equally unabashed on "Bombshell," a tune about fading beauty ("Are those really my thighs?") that might have hit too close to home for a less secure woman. She and longtime producer Richard Landis enhance her still-swingy style with such adroit backup musicians as mandolinist Aubrey Haney, guitarist Larry Byrum and steel guitarist Paul Franklin. If she wanted to, Morgan could probably follow Suzy Bogguss and Crystal Gayle into pop/jazz realms, but as it is, she's still the best honky-tonk angel this side of Kitty Wells.
Seventeen-year-old Rose tries to be the missing link between Avril Lavigne
and Liz Phair on her debut disc. Unfortunately, despite all her bad-girl posturing and jaded-beyond-her-years attitude, she has yet to develop her own musical identity on these crunchy rockers and power-pop ballads. The singer, who cowrote all 12 cuts with her dad, musician Kim Bullard, comes off as a whining wannabe on tracks like the rockabilly-ish "Catch My Fall": "My glass is full, but it tastes like s---." Still, on the bluesy, acoustic-guitar-driven "Original Skin," Rose shows the potential to forge her own unique style.
- Chuck Arnold,
- Ralph Novak.