OK. Most of us grown-ups have long since gotten a clue about the underlying structure of human experience. As the ancients thought, there are, in fact, three old broads who rule our lives, but they aren't Norns, or Fates, or Furies. No, the unshakeable pillars of the sublunary world in this sad age are three stringy hags named Jealousy, Envy and Spite. They're always there in the shadows, but when a success appears, they get oh so busy. If that success is richly deserved, they get busier. (Joan Rivers outside the Oscars does a good impersonation.)
Witness the critical response to Norah Jones and company's second album, Feels Like Home. Her first release, Come Away With Me, sold 18 million copies, largely through word-of-mouth, giving the recording industry a big fat hint about how to make money again: Offer interesting, beautiful, lovable music to the sort of uncool people who prefer buying music to stealing it.
"Come Away With Me" also attracted Grammys, like a refrigerator attracts magnets. Boy, did that Jones chick need to be taken down a peg or two.
Now, her second CD is being condescended to, sniffed at and dismissed by every music writer alive. At the same time, it's selling like hot cakes to us lumpen proles, which is the sort of thing that makes second-rate critics the bitter, painfully-self-revealing gnomes they are. People keep liking what they do, no matter how often you tell them exactly why they're wrong, wrong, wrong to like it.
The snark has reached such a pitch that The New Yorker recently allowed a person named Sasha Frere-Jones--a "musician and writer living in New York"--to spend five columns damning Jones with faint praise. After reviewing the current state of thought about the music's mystifying popularity--and generously mentioning that she knows people who've fallen asleep at Norah's concerts--Frere-Jones finally concedes, "There are two plausible explanations for all this smoke and fire: Norah Jones is actually pretty good. And she is selling the all-time No.1 hit song--sex."
Frankly, I don't think admitting that it's plausible Jones is "actually pretty good" deducts any points off of Frere-Jones' Spite-o-Meter. I've never seen anyone, anywhere, deny that our gal has a delicious voice--a supple, inventive musicality trained up to the standards of dead-serious jazz and a band of equally fine musicians to whom she seems organically fused.
So the real revelation here seems to be that Jones' music is about love, longing and sex. Yes. And?
Well, and that's why it's so popular. The little minx from Texas has been singing about romance all along--it's her secret weapon. My lord, why didn't someone tell Elvis that sex sells? Or Billie Holiday, or Peggy Lee, or Debbie Harry? Or Giacomo Puccini, for that matter? They could have tried it, too. And what about that poor Britney Spears? Has anyone spoken with her about getting out of those "Where are they now?" columns by making her stuff naughty? It never fails, you know.
Still, our critic finds that Jones' torchiness doesn't really measure up, because Jones doesn't write or sound like Lucinda Williams. While it's certainly true that Jones and Williams do not sound much alike, the point of the comparison remains mystifying. It is in fact hard to imagine Jones ripping open her guts on stage like Williams, but then how's Williams at doing Ellington or Hoagy Carmichael? Surely, pop music is a mansion of many rooms.
However, the single most infuriating thing Frere-Jones has to say about the new album is that "Humble Me," while "a lovely song," isn't "nearly as grim as it wants to be." Now, I used to do some reviewing, and attributing unfulfilled longings to films or songs or other created things is a pretentious and very-low trick. It's on about the same level as knifing a movie by calling it "a small film" in the opening paragraph. Shun, my friends, shun the reviewer who swims through these rhetorical depths. The hags got him long ago.
Let me cite my son, who seems to me as qualified as Frere-Jones to assess our Norah. He, too, is a musician living in New York! He's a third-year, string performance major at Manhattan School of Music and a musical snob of the first water. (Example: He's disgusted by Yo-Yo Ma's recordings of Bach.)
Dave and his know-it-all friends think Jones is "just so good." So there.