Jones plays it safe and comfortable

Norah Jones

"Not Too Late" (Blue Note)

* * *

THERE'S no question that Norah Jones has the talent and the taste to reign indefinitely as the soothing seductress of adult pop. Five years after her breakthrough success, the question is whether she wants to take it to a more challenging creative level.

For all the popularity of her first two albums, "Come Away With Me" and "Feels Like Home," the singer and songwriter has been timid about breaching the realm of expressive popular art occupied by such immortals as Patsy Cline, Emmylou Harris and Nina Simone, to name three singers with some relevance to Jones' musical vision.

It's more a matter of choices than chops. The New York-based Texan's raw gifts -- the pure, vibrato-free tone, the calibrated control of dynamics and shading -- equip her for greatness, but her narrow range of color and tempo and her overriding restraint have muted her potential.

But even though caution reigned on her first two albums, Jones has been sneaking out to play. On the country side project the Little Willies and in a guest vocal with the experimental rock-hip-hop band Peeping Tom, she loosened up and showed a lively, rowdy side.

A bit of that spirit finds its way onto her third album, which comes out Tuesday. In "Sinkin' Soon," a Weill-style cabaret number, and the theatrical "My Dear Country," she's an entirely different singer, with an edgy tone and an animated personality. "Little Room" is less adventurous, but she does give it a bit of bawdiness. But whenever she finds herself somewhere like that, she quickly repairs to her sanctuary of austere alt-country and simmering light soul.

With the death last year of producer Arif Mardin, who helped craft the understated settings on her first two albums, that role has been assumed by Lee Alexander, her regular bassist, frequent songwriting collaborator and boyfriend. Nobody's rocking the boat too much, though Jones does seem to be trying to dig a little deeper into the heart of the material.

Maybe what she should do is sneak out again and escape the reassuring embrace of her tight little musical circle. This sleeping beauty needs to find someone to give her a big sloppy kiss.

-- Richard Cromelin

A thunderous clap of quirkiness

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

"Some Loud Thunder" (self-released)

* * 1/2

SOME loud thunder, indeed. The title track of this second album from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah kicks off the collection with a deliberately distortion-laced ramble through a mind overwhelmed by chatter -- from the telephone, from TV, perhaps from all the buzz this band generated last year by becoming a do-it-yourself, Internet-promoted success story. This follow-up to the Brooklyn/Philadelphia-based quintet's 2005 debut has a similarly wide eccentric streak and evokes a dizzying array of pop styles, from star-dusted Bowie to droning Coldplay to rambling Velvet Underground to icy Joy Division. Guitarist-songwriter Alec Ounsworth's reedy vocals will continue to be a dealbreaker for listeners who find the high-pitched whine grating, but by now we know the group's quirks are a love-it-or-hate-it proposition.

CYHSY's charms lie in its blend of raw chaos and pop craft, emotional immediacy and poetic insight, and here it carefully mixes folky acoustic guitars, electric feedback, wheedly new-wave keyboards, somber piano, clever percussion and layered vocals into tracks that veer from sarcastic to poignant. Yet despite many fetching elements, the collection as a whole feels scattered and undercooked. The second half becomes tedious, with such enervating tracks as "Arm and Hammer" and the muddled "Five Easy Pieces" sapping the album's energy, despite such fun stuff as the electroclash-fueled "Satan Said Dance," with its goofy refrain and notion that Hell may turn out to be something absurdly unexpected.

Other worthwhile songs conjure up much different emotions, as with "Emily Jean Stock," in which the combination of airy multipart harmonies soaring above a bed of buzzing noise captures the disturbingly needy, worshipful feel of the lyrics. And there are many gems of meaning and sound to be mined from the mournful-to-floaty "Mama, Won't You Keep Them Castles in the Air and Burning?" Flaws aside, "Some Loud Thunder" is a highly original and weirdly accomplished work worth hearing.

-- Natalie Nichols

Brother J and crew back in full effect


"Return From Mecca"

(Suburban Noize)

* * *

FOR most music groups, a 15-year layoff would be disastrous. With X-Clan, it's almost as if the hip-hop group has been stuck in a time capsule: The vocal and lyrical skills of lead rapper Brother J (who has the most powerful, authoritative voice in rap this side of Public Enemy's Chuck D) and the group's funk-drenched production sound as forceful and vibrant on its strong new album (due Tuesday) as they did on 1992's "Xodus."

That's several generations in the fast-paced rap world, but fortunately for the art of the politically minded, Brooklyn-based collective, many of the same ills plaguing society in the early 1990s remain. The bleak "Why U Doing That?" bemoans the damaging impact of America's crumbling educational system, among other governmental deficiencies, while the chilling "Prison" likens modern-day incarceration to yesterday's slavery.

Although X-Clan and Brother J are quick to point to this country's flaws, they also provide the inspirational "3rd Eyes on Me," which calls for racial unity. When the Clan strays from its pulpit, as on the boast-heavy "Funky for You," the music and the accompanying choruses aren't as imaginative, even though they are still largely enjoyable, making this a rare rap "Return" well worth the wait.

-- Soren Baker

Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor). Albums reviewed have been released except as indicated.

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