She's sneaking up on us again

Norah Jones

"Feels Like Home" (Blue Note)

*** 1/2

This album doesn't knock you out on first listening, but then neither did "Come Away With Me," Jones' 2002 debut that ended up winning a Grammy for album of the year. How many times did you hear someone ask, "What's all the fuss about?" after first hearing the album -- only to eventually fall under its seductive spell?

The same pattern may repeat itself here. As the follow-up to an album that has sold 8 million copies in the U.S. alone, "Feels Like Home" feels initially to be strikingly modest and unassuming. But give it time.

From almost any other artist, "Sunrise," the opening track, would seem subdued. Measured against "Don't Know Why," the delicate hit from her debut collection, however, the romantic salute virtually kicks up its heels.

It's the second tune, the country-tinged "What Am I to You?," that best reflects the soulful taste and restraint of "Don't Know Why," and those qualities hook you just as strongly the second time around.

One of six songs written or co-written by Jones, it is a wistful tale about the need for romantic reassurance. In a key line that captures wonderfully the song's simple grace, Jones asks, "I will love you when you're blue/ But tell me darlin' true/ What am I to you?"

The next three songs (also written by or with her bandmates) don't stand up as well -- tuneful, but anonymous.

Things pick up again with a dramatic reworking of Townes Van Zandt's achingly vulnerable "Be Here to Love Me" that underscores Jones' superb feel for country-edged material. A duet with Dolly Parton on bassist Lee Alexander's zesty country workout, "Creepin' In," also sparkles.

"Toes," a song about taking a chance in life that she co-wrote with Alexander, and "Long Way Home," an especially sweet tale of romantic innocence written by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, also showcase Jones' rare ability among contemporary pop singers to isolate the emotional heart of a song.

Still, the song that challenges "What Am I to You?" as the CD's highlight is "Don't Miss You at All," a tender expression of loss and need that Jones wrote to the music of Duke Ellington's "Melancholia."

This is no more a perfect album than "Come Away With Me," but its highlights again carry the stamp of a singer whose talent is strong and whose vision is true.

-- Robert Hilburn

Defiance in labors of Love

Courtney Love

"America's Sweetheart" (Virgin)

***

When you go nearly six years between albums, a lot can change. It wasn't that long ago that Love was leading an army. Now she seems like the last of a breed.

The kind of confessional punk/grunge/hard rock that made her one of rock's compelling forces at the end of the '90s is now a marginalized niche in a world run by hip-hop and pop. Even the rock that is making sparks today speaks a different language, and the battalion of promising female rockers that once lined up behind Love has dwindled to practically nothing.

But on Love's first album under her own name after her career with Hole, she seems inspired by this isolation. She always has something to prove, but now she's got nothing to lose, and in the best moments of "America's Sweetheart" (in stores Tuesday) she simply rears back and rocks with a bracing defiance that vaporizes the credibility-testing antics of her public life -- from the drug arrests to her court battle for control of the music catalog of her late husband, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain.

Things like that have antagonized many, and Love seems perfectly happy to play the rock 'n' roll hellion that she's been painted as. "Did you miss me?" she taunts in "Mono," the complex, captivatingly confrontational punk-rock/glam-rock epic that opens the album.

In contrast to the raw, subdued intimacy of Hole's "Live Though This," the sound here is all dressed up and accessorized, hard and aggressive but tuneful and hook-laden. But Love never strains to contrive something trendy, despite the presence of Matchbox Twenty producer Matt Serletic on two songs.

That doesn't mean this CD sustains its initial force and allure all the way through. Love settles into some indifferent, generic stretches and even offers a track that makes her sound like the Donnas (when you're on a date with Courtney, the last thing you want to do is be thinking about other women).

Even so, the music gives the sense of springing instinctively from Love's drive to spill her guts about her demons and desires, about a life spinning out of control. It entails disarmingly sexual vernacular and blunt self-evaluation, but it never comes off as gratuitously shocking. She might be a little self-obsessed, but the wit and urgency in her rants take them far from the off-putting solipsism of Madonna's latest.

-- Richard Cromelin

Chesney takes game to next level

Kenny Chesney

"When the Sun Goes Down" (BNA)

***

So much of mainstream country music is about playing to fans' expectations that it's a bit startling to find Chesney repeatedly going for something more on this follow-up to his big breakthrough album of 2002, "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems."

There must have been pressure not to fix what wasn't broken, at least in terms of connecting with fans, and there are spots in this collection where he simply recapitulates his apparent intuitive awareness of what a woman wants to hear (love articulated, but also unwavering commitment) and his firsthand knowledge of what a man likes to do (party). Now he adds a third layer: examining how people handle their darker impulses.

"Some People Change" touches on how sins of fathers and mothers (racism, alcoholism) are visited upon sons and daughters. "When I Think About Leaving" takes several points of view in looking at the urge to abandon relationships, while the first single, "There Goes My Life," heads into risky territory in suggesting that one person's happiness needn't always supersede someone else's.

The album's best number is "Being Drunk's a Lot Like Loving You," which Chesney wrote with Skip Ewing. It's an instant honky-tonk classic that owes a debt to Mickey Newbury's "Juble Lee's Revival" but is keenly observant on its own.

Chesney doesn't go in much for lyrical subtlety or artfulness but sticks to a heart-on-sleeve directness that makes his a characteristically American voice.

-- Randy Lewis

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