Norah Jones, Royal Festival Hall, London

 

Norah Jones’ look and manner seem to come from the kooky-but-cool Zooey Deschanel school of style. In canary yellow dress, bright red Fender and fluffy-fringed, dark hair, she purrs with a sweet voice: “How are you up in the top? So high! I like my audiences high!...Kinda kidding...”

But there’s nothing charmingly bumbling about this sleek performance. Jones’ backing band play everything from double bass to accordion, while she adeptly flits between electric and classic guitars, keyboard and piano.  

Every note is held back and slowed down, as though each band member is waiting for the next one to play. The space between the sounds works as a tense hook at first, but as slow beat follows slow, mellow, understated beat, the lack of pace becomes frustrating. Its sole purpose seems to be to demonstrate the flexibility of the music and skill and adaptability of the musicians, rather than addressing the growing tedium of one languorous song following the next. Luckily there’s enough variety in Jones’ extensive range of jazz, folk, soul and country sounds to keep the set interesting.  

When she performs “Don’t Know Why”, the breakout hit, that won her a Grammy in 2003, she elects to wring out the full essence of the lyrics with another slow-paced rendition, accompanied only by her piano. For this song, it works. We are left to focus on the myriad meanings of the words, “don’t know why I didn’t come”. And even devout fans might have unearthed new allusions from her lilting piano chords and smoky, pleading voice.  

Tracks from Jones’ new album, Little Broken Hearts see her riffing on familiar territory. Breaking up is a central theme, but her well-worn country soul sound is given a modern lift with synthy electric distortions. The skillfully discordant title track stands out as an experimental departure from Jones’ signature sound, her voice sounds more animal than human and there’s an edgy hypnotism about the heavy, slow drumming.  

A spattering of covers includes a soft, clean, old school jazz version of Hank Williams’ “Cold Cold Heart”. “Black” from Danger Mouse’s Rome album (on which Jones sings guest vocals) also adds spice, with unsettling, eerie harmonised male vocals backing Jones’ dark whispered lyrics, which somehow retain a slight country-singer vibe, even when she’s singing about city streets and disease.

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