The queen of Starbucks Entertainment is back with her third album, and it’s a safe one. Like Come Away With Me and Feels Like Home (we liked both), the record has a couple that will grab you — but the rest is meant to be set on repeat while you have civilized company over for fancy cocktails and forced laughter. It’s also great for bedtime. A new batch of tunes is exciting for any true fan, of course, so people that think she’s perfect just the way she is: this one’s for you. Meanwhile, we know that, for every Norah-fanatic, there’s one in the closet (someone had to buy all those records), and we suspect that a few of you are itching to come out and say “See!” when she makes good on that alternate persona she teased last year. Sorry kids; not this time. She obviously wants to explore, but she’s chained to the coffee shop that feeds her. Starbucks Entertainment President Ken Lombard told Rolling Stone, “We couldn’t be more excited for Norah’s newest release … Our customers love Norah. We’ve got high expectations.” He’ll be happy with Not Too Late.
The record starts off sleepy and dials up the yawn from there. “Wish I Could” is what we expect from Norah; smoky, gentle voice over calm chords, joined by a sweet harmony and mild, added instrumentals (here, violin). Bold move with track two, the Iraqi war contemplating “Sinkin’ Soon,” giving us a little slow ragtime (the closest she’s coming to Tom Waits on this one) and an M. Ward vocal. And who doesn’t love trombone and guitjo, and who’s opposed to an M. Ward cameo? Not us. So far, okay.
But from there it’s back to the mild, tasteful, lite country stuff with “The Sun Doesn’t Like You,” and the record’s style stays in that world, with Norah’s jazz roots grounding it throughout. “Until The End” is Norah with a little Wurlitzer, a few piano dabbles, and self-revealing lyrics; “Wake Me Up” is slow and tuneful country-tinged lap steel guitar pop, and both are for fans of Come Away With Me that need that sound with new lyrics to sing. The only thing that could make Norah more cute is, like, a whistling solo. She does that in “Living Room”? Right. By comparison to the rest, first single “Thinking About You” is a barn burner. Don’t get us wrong, she understands subtlety and instrumental dynamics, but when it’s as understated as ever … why do it again?
The songs were written over the past two years, with bassist (and boyfriend) Lee Alexander taking a writing credit on half of the 14 songs, and while she’s surrounded herself with great players (like Kronos Quartet cellist Jeff Ziegler and the awesome Andy Levy, always spot-on with his solos), it’s more of the same. Do you need that? Maybe. Cute as country, bland as milquetoast. Expect it to sell 2 million copies. We’re waiting for an El Mad Mo record. Next stop: Hollywood.
Not Too Late is out 1/30 on Blue Note.