The arrival of Norah Jones’ second album makes one thing clear: Any debate as to whether she’s a jazz singer is effectively over. Not that she was ever considered one in the traditional sense. Jazz singers don’t normally cover songs by the upscale-coffeehouse likes of Jesse Harris, as she did on much of her shockingly huge debut, ”Come Away With Me.” Nor do they make videos in which they stroll barefoot on beaches, which Jones also did. But if not jazz, what style of music is Jones aiming to play? And what can she bring to the table other than the unerring tastefulness and cozy charm of her first disc?
Generally, Feels Like Home picks up where its predecessor left off. Once again, her voice — alternately breathy, girlish, and ruminative — is front and center. The mood remains hushed and intimate, as inviting as a couch on a lazy day. (”When you’re feelin’ low/To whom else do you go?” she sings at one point, summing up her appeal.) And as with ”Come Away With Me,” the album ends with a token jazz interpretation: Duke Ellington’s obscure instrumental ”Melancholia,” which Jones renames ”Don’t Miss You at All,” and to which she adds see-you-later lyrics.
The new directions announce themselves with the subtlety one would expect from Jones. The delicate jazz references of ”Come Away With Me” are downplayed in favor of equally low-key nods to country (the buttery two-step of ”Sunrise”) and ”O Brother” bluegrass (”Creepin’ In,” a cutesy duet with Dolly Parton). Moaning slide guitars and soothing accordions often overtake Jones’ piano. Harris songs are out; covers of Townes Van Zandt (a lovely ”Be Here to Love Me”) and Tom Waits (a countrified take on ”The Long Way Home”) are in.
No one will ever mistake ”Home” for actual vernacular music; between Jones’ soft-focus delivery and the cultivated arrangements, the music doesn’t cut to the bone the way potent country or blues does. ”Feels Like Home” seems tailor-made for Southwestern spa owners who’ve tired of South American flutes. Still, for anyone whose tastes run more to roots music than jazz, these understated changes are good news; the vibe is more early Bonnie Raitt than early Sarah Vaughan. Normally, having one’s backup musicians contribute material isn’t a good idea, but bassist (and partner) Lee Alexander’s glistening ”Toes” (cowritten with Jones) and guitarist Adam Levy’s understated blues ”In the Morning” are graceful, if not spectacular, songs.
What’s lacking, no matter the genre, is anything approaching catharsis. Whether she’s questioning a lover’s devotion (”What Am I to You?”) or singing in the voice of a woman who’s taken her child and left her screwed-up husband (”Humble Me”), Jones’ voice conveys warmth and contentment but little in the way of urgency or intensity. One explanation could be age; at 24, she may simply be too young to have experienced the bumpy lives of jazz or country-folk singers past. After a while, though, the album’s unwavering tranquillity begins to feel stifling. ”Home” is a nice place to be, but it isn’t always free of stress or aggravation.