Bland on Bland

The Norah Jones phenomenon is astonishing, but it's not without precedent. The public's love affair with Jones strongly recalls the reaction to Tracy Chapman's 1988 debut album. Like Jones, Chapman was a demographic miracle, a young artist who older folks could understand and embrace. To them, she represented a return to substance and real musicianship, a promising cultural swing away from pop's sexed-up frivolity. Like Jones, she was also a musical conservative. Even when she talked about a revolution, it sounded like a whisper.

Chapman rode that career momentum into strong initial sales for her sophomore album, but listeners soon lost interest when they realized Chapman kept making the same album with different titles. Aside from a 1996 fluke hit with the bluesy "Give Me One Reason," she permanently fell off the musical map.

As with Chapman, Jones' lack of charisma has worked to her advantage, being interpreted as proof of authenticity. There's much to admire about Jones. She reached a mega-audience without hype, flash, or contrivance, and her natural humility is refreshing in an era dominated by histrionics and self-aggrandizement.

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Feels Like Home

Norah Jones

(Blue Note)

Jones also possesses an undeniably beautiful voice, with a soulful fluidity and just enough huskiness to put her on the edge of sultriness. But it's a voice that's only able to convey one mood, a sort of humorless, wistful resignation. When you hear Dolly Parton duet with Jones on the country shuffle "Creepin' In," you immediately notice the difference between a great singer and a pleasant one. Parton effortlessly conveys so much earthy exuberance, she makes Jones sound sedated by comparison.

There are some winning moments on Feels Like Home that hint at growth potential for Jones. "Don't Miss You At All," her adaptation of Duke Ellington's "Melancholia," is suitably gorgeous. And even the tentative, Starbucks funk of "In the Morning" emboldens Jones to open up and show some vocal fire. Unfortunately, the song, like much of her ballad-heavy material, is too bland to stick.

For Jones, the enduring lesson of Chapman should be clear. It's nice to know your limitations, but that doesn't make you any less limited. •

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