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CD Review

Jones takes a fresh, cool turn

By James Reed
Globe Staff / November 17, 2009

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As the millennium’s first decade wraps up, the time is ripe to reflect on its influential pop musicians, regardless of whether you like their music. Norah Jones springs to mind as an emblematic artist who divided folks into two camps: “This is the soundtrack of my life!’’ versus “This makes me want to take my own life.’’

After making a big splash with her 2002 debut, “Come Away With Me,’’ the inevitable backlash followed. Suddenly, comparing someone to Norah Jones was shorthand for saying they made music polite and pleasant enough for Sunday dinners with grandma. Nellie McKay, the eccentric pop-cabaret singer, even parodied Jones two years later with her own debut, “Get Away From Me.’’

You sense that Jones was aware of her well-worn blueprint when she set out to make her fourth album, “The Fall,’’ out today on Blue Note. She seems liberated from the expectations of what her music is supposed to sound like, and the album is flush with fresh production ideas and a varied sonic palette. So many of these new songs brim with a spare and contemporary Julie London kind of cool, starting with the sly lead single, “Chasing Pirates.’’

A change in personnel took Jones down different roads, and it paid off. She co-wrote songs with Ryan Adams and Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, and the list of storied collaborators includes guitarists Marc Ribot and Smokey Hormel and drummer Joey Waronker.

Mimicking some of his previous work with Tom Waits and Kings of Leon, Jacquire King employs a lean production that gives “The Fall’’ a thin sheen of tension, often pitting Jones’s languorous delivery against brooding arrangements. Her coy vocal on “I Wouldn’t Need You’’ would trail off into the ether if not for the din of minor chords anchoring the song.

She’s on more familiar ground with the graceful jazz-pop of “Back to Manhattan,’’ but listen closely and you’ll hear the wail of a melancholy guitar and vaporous, gurgling electronics. “Man of the Hour,’’ a cute slip of a love song, closes the album on a humorous note: “I can’t choose between a vegan and a pothead/ So I chose you/ Because you’re sweet and you give me lots of lovin’/ And you eat meat.’’

That’s the tasteful stuff you expect from Jones; the rest of “The Fall,’’ while not a total sea change, is what really catches you off guard and makes you excited about her next move. And all it took was burnishing a gem we already knew to an unexpected and vibrant hue.

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.