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Norah Jones Weaves a Haunting Allure; Super Furry Animals Study Anthropology

Pop Music | Record Rack

March 17, 2002|Robert Hilburn; Steve Hochman; Richard Cromelin; Kevin Bronson; Steve Baltin; Soren Baker; Agustin Gurza

***1/2

NORAH JONES

"Come Away With Me"

Blue Note

Despite training in jazz, Jones has musical instincts that seem tied far more closely to a soulful, sometimes country-accented brand of pop that is showcased marvelously in this album debut.

The 22-year-old Texan's deliberate, molasses-like vocal style is so understated that it may seem one-dimensional on first listening, but the restraint eventually hooks you with its haunting allure and underlying sense of longing.

Moving between such extremes as the honky-tonk lament of Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart" and the pop-standard turf of Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington's "The Nearness of You," Jones seems equally comfortable and controlled. She even turns John D. Loudermilk's semi-novelty "Turn Me On" into a teasingly sensual experience.

Jones also has some impressive originals from songwriters Lee Alexander and Jesse Harris, who play in her band and contribute such smart, fresh numbers as numbers as "Don't Know Why" and "Seven Years."

Producer Arif Mardin, who has worked with such exquisite singers as Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield, has enough faith in Jones and the material to keep the arrangements intimate and tasteful.

In this age of media overkill, Jones, who will be at the House of Blues in West Hollywood on April 3-4, is getting a lot of attention. But don't think that it's just hype. The highlights here reflect an individuality and honesty that are reminiscent, in a much more low-key way, of Shelby Lynne's extraordinary "I Am Shelby Lynne" collection.

-- Robert Hilburn

***1/2

SUPER FURRY ANIMALS

"Rings Around the World"

XL Recordings/Beggars Group

It's easy to dismiss as frivolous a band that calls itself Super Furry Animals, has a song titled "Happiness Is a Worn Pun" and incorporates prank phone calls into its centerpiece title track. But on the U.S. release of its sixth album (last year's U.K. version plus a seven-song bonus disc), the Welsh quintet joins the league of XTC, Pulp and Blur among Britain's most consistently rewarding, witty purveyors of imaginative pop and cultural anthropology.

A recurring theme in "Rings" (in stores Tuesday) is the fate of regional and individual identities in a shrinking world, with singer Gruff Rhys imagining the Caspian Sea merging with Irish lakes and Korean suburbs as a backdrop to heartbreak. In the title song, he fears that "sooner or later we will melt together" as cell phones make solitude anachronistic--although with its hyper-Beach Boys bubbliness, it may be the most joyous song about satellite telecommunications since "Telstar."

Melting has been good for the music, with SFA gleefully and confidently layering sunny Beatles psychedelia and seductive Bacharach strings with three or four subsequent generations of rock, adorned with lightly applied techno filigree and a variety of peekaboo sonic surprises. Like much great pop music, it is frivolous, but with purpose.

--Steve Hochman

***

CUSTOM

"Fast"

ARTISTdirect

When it comes to music, you're not always looking for the great love of your life--that special artist worth a long-range commitment. Sometimes a little fling is all you want, and who's to say there's anything wrong with enjoying a first-rate seduction, even if you know you're getting snowed?

Case in point: Custom, a singing-songwriting guilty pleasure who purrs in your ear like a Brit-rock urchin (though he's from New York) and showers you with promises of exotic adventure and erotic edginess. Sonically, lyrically and melodically, his debut album (in stores Tuesday) lays it on so thick that you don't have time to deploy your defenses. It's more fun to play along with these blends of swaggering grandiosity and tender vulnerability, concocted from a shot of Bowie/Cure youthful ache, a dash of Queen bombast, an infusion of Nine Inch Nails' tortured soul.

Custom (whose real name is Duane Lavold) taunts his teenage girlfriend's father in "Hey Mister," storyboards a cinematic tale about assassin and target in "Streets" (he's also a filmmaker, wouldn't you know?), and describes a messy romantic triangle in "Morning Spank," all with faux-gritty and raunchy-naughty flair.

You don't have to believe a minute of it to enjoy it thoroughly. And there's no need to hate yourself in the morning.

--Richard Cromelin

***1/2

THE REPUTATION

"The Reputation"

Initial

Elizabeth Elmore has been hurt--by boyfriends, by the breakup of her band Sarge after a quarter-note in the spotlight in 1998, by "so-called friends" who vanished after she shelved her pop aspirations to focus on her Northwestern Law School studies. But her piquant dissection of such transgressions on her new band's upcoming debut resists fits of sulking or rage.

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