A new Norah Jones, and Jack White’s solo debut

Posted: April 22, 2012

She’s light, he’s heavy.

He makes amped-up music, rife with conflict. She‘s got the most preternaturally soothing voice in pop, suitable for soy-latte sipping.

But as Norah Jones and Jack White get set to release two of the most anticipated albums of the season — her Little Broken Hearts (Blue Note?/?Capitol sssf) and his Blunderbuss (Third Man?/?Columbia sssf) — it turns out they have more in common than just Danger Mouse.

That’s the nom de knob-twiddling of Brian Burton, the celebrated producer who helmed Little Broken Hearts and cowrote all the songs with Jones on the album, which gives her sometimes soporific music a subtle, just-right makeover. It comes out a decade after the release of her gauzy Grammy-grabbing debut, Come Away With Me, which went on to sell more than 10 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Serial collaborator that he is, White, the former front man of the White Stripes who has worked with everyone from Loretta Lynn to the Insane Clown Posse over a decade-plus career that has been marked by critical acclaim and popular success (albeit not on the scale of Jones’), has also crossed paths with Burton. They both worked on Rome, the 2011 tribute to Italian composer Ennio Morricone and the spaghetti Western movies of Sergio Leone, which was put together by Danger Mouse along with Daniele Luppi. White sang two songs on Rome, and Jones applied her sultry imprimatur on a pair of songs as well.

That connection between Jones and Burton led to the full-on collaboration on Little Broken Hearts (to be released May 1, but now streaming at npr.org), whose overall tone is not quite so perky as the lead single, “Happy Pills,” might lead you to expect.

By contrast, White — whose control-freak tendencies are well documented (he told the New York Times magazine recently that he amplifies the sound of rain outside his window so he can hear it as he falls asleep) — is fully out on his own on Blunderbuss, his first solo album (to be released Tuesday).

That may be just a semantic distinction, though, since White was clearly the creative force on the six albums that he and his ex-wife Meg released as the color-coordinated White Stripes between 1999 and 2007, a period when they were the greatest of American rock-and-roll bands.

Meg White’s drumming was always almost unnaturally rudimentary, while Jack freely displayed virtuosity on guitar as well as formidable genre-spanning songwriting skills. But the self-imposed limitations added a crucial tension to the band’s identity.

Heavy rock, with a side of folk

On the excellently titled Blunderbuss — named for a muzzle-loading shotgun or an oafish, error-prone individual (like, perhaps, a certain pale-skinned rock star?) — White is free of restrictions. Given that, the 36-year-old Nashville-based guitarist doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but does take advantage of broadening his musical approach by using, for instance, fiddle, Hammond organ, and the powerhouse drumming of Carla Azar on the crushing riff-rocker “Sixteen Saltines.”

Besides Meg, White has a more recent ex-wife in supermodel-singer Karen Elson, and while their 2011 split was amicable, Blunderbuss’ songs are full of romantic toil and trouble, severed body parts and broken hearts. “I was in the shower so I could not tell my nose was bleeding,“ White sings in “Missing Pieces.”

White is skilled at conjuring mystery and mischief, creating a theatrical backstory that allows him to present his fervid explorations of time-honored musical forms with theatrical flair. (That will continue when White takes to the road, backed by separate all-female and all-male bands. He plays the Firefly festival in Dover, Del., on July 20.)

The songs on Blunderbuss, he has insisted in interviews, are more personal statements than those he made with the White Stripes or other projects, such as the Raconteurs or the Dead Weather. “These songs feel like they could only be presented under my own name,” he told Reuters. They “had nothing to do with anyone or anything else but my own expression.”

If they really are outpourings directly from his soul, White is a pretty troubled guy, paranoid at times, seeking torment to feel fully alive at others. “I want love to roll me over slowly, stick a knife inside me, and twist it all around,” he sings in “Love Interruption,” one of the prettier songs on an album that moves between White’s heavy rock and country, folk, and gospel impulses. Also in the latter category is the striking, shame-haunted “On and On and On,” in which White, born John Gillis, dreamily laments that “I look at myself and I want to just cover my eyes and give myself a new name.”

A new Norah Jones

Jones has given herself a new look — note her tousled hair on the album cover — and, more important, a new sound on Little Broken Hearts. The album’s dozen song arrangements sport cool textures that blend synthesizers with acoustic instruments. They stay in Jones’ mid-tempo comfort zone, for the most part, but Burton — the man who conflated Jay-Z and the Beatles into The Grey Album and, along with Cee-Lo, came up with Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” — has a knack for pop hooks that give the album a welcome snap.

Little Broken Hearts is a far less humdrum affair than Burton’s last high-profile team-up, Broken Bells, with James Mercer of the Shins, and is also a big improvement over Jones’ last solo album, 2009’s inconsistent The Fall. That record was something of a breakup album after the end of Jones’ relationship with longtime beau Jesse Harris, but Little Broken Hearts has a welcome, unexpected, scornful edge.

“It’s alright, and it’s OK,” the 33-year-old Jones sings while bidding adieu in “Say Goodbye.” “I don‘t need you anyway.” And in the song “She’s 22,” her question “Does she make you happy?” is initially directed at an ex-paramour with contempt, but as she repeats the phrase Jones grows self-reflective, and sorrowful, pondering what was lost.

Most fun of all on Little Broken Hearts is “Miriam,” in which Jones is out for revenge, the grainy quality of her voice emphasized as the song’s atmospheric arrangement envelops the listener. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Jones has cast herself as a cold-blooded killer who’s able to maintains her composure as she promises her nemesis: “I’m going to smile as you say goodbye.” For the ever-innocent-seeming Jones it’s an excellent instance of playing against type, and the most delicious moment on her best album in ages.

Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or deluca@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, “In the Mix,” at www.philly.com/inthemix.

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