Track of the Week: Norah Jones' "Chasing Pirates"

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Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 29 2009 4:07 PM

Track of the Week: Norah Jones' "Chasing Pirates"



Jonah Weiner : Hi Jody. In 2004, Norah Jones released her second album, Feels Like Home . It sold 1.02 million copies in its first week, putting her in the rarefied company of 50 Cent, Usher, and Lil Wayne—artists likely to go down in history as the last ones to ever muster seven-figure CD sales in seven days. Which one of these four is not like the other? Jones has something in common with Usher, I guess, in that her songs concern matters of the heart; unlike him, though, she typically sings about romance as if it's some slow-dripped brew, the sort you don't put your mouth anywhere near until it stops steaming and approaches room temperature. (Like 50 Cent and Lil Wayne she ... well ... is a carbon-based life form.)

The rap on Jones is that her music is a snooze. I agreed in the case of "Don't Know Why," her 2002 breakout hit, and disagreed (in a gentle, agreeable sort of way) when Feels Like Home 's "Sunrise" came out. It's soft but propulsive, and the keening, wordless chorus is lovely. "Sunrise" made me think of some of Christine McVie's songs genteel, swooning, suggesting that more dramatic emotions were roiling beneath the buttoned-up surface. "Chasing Pirates" is instantly grabbier than any of Jones' previous singles. It has the most pronounced rhythmic play—I like how the reverby keyboard riff, rock drums, and staccato rhythm guitar lock into sultry formation in the opening bars. And by her chaste standards, that Fender Rhodes solo later on is downright X-rated!

The lyrics seem to be about crushing on some hard-to-get bad boy. (You know the type: He has three glasses of Malbec, neglects to recycle the bottle, and then totally shows up an hour late to the next day's MoMA date.) Norah gets a text at the song's start from this guy, he says he's turning in, and the rest of "Chasing Pirates" is her wondering what's going on between them. If you're waiting for an event—a snarl of anger, a lustful moan—you're listening to the wrong song.  

Jody Rosen : Hello there, Jonah. First, let's deal with the history part. You're all mixed up about Norah's two big hits. " Don't Know Why " is the good one. For one thing, it's got the better hook. There's a touch—a touch—more swing and swerve in "Don't Know Why"; the thing's grabbier. It's also got that crucial moment of lyrical ambiguity: "Don't know why I didn't come." What, precisely, is this gorgeous young woman, this rare flower, talking about? I have my theory: I blame Ms. Jones' incompetent whelp of a boyfriend. There are certain, um, issues that can only be remedied by a man of the world, a "pirate" indeed—an aging pop music critic, say, with an air of swank dissolution about him and a dusting of gray at the temples.

But there I go again—holding others responsible for Norah's problems. I did this a couple of years ago, in my Slate review of Jones' third album, Not Too Late , arguing that she needed to jettison her poky little band (which included her then-boyfriend, Lee Alexander, on bass). Far be it for me to suggest that Norah is taking my advice ... mais voilà ! She's dumped the bassist beau, dumped her band, and taken up with a bunch of ringers, including drummer Joey Waronker, guitarists Marc Ribot and Smokey Hormel, and the neosoul go-to keyboardist James Poyser, who plays with The Roots on Jimmy Fallon's show. Jones' forthcoming album The Fall has been hyped as her indie rock record, and on "Chasing Pirates" you can hear it: It's a more raggedy, nominally more "rock" sound. You're right about the rhythm. There's an interesting bassline and—who'd have thunk it?—the drumming is funky.

But guess what? The song's as boring as ever. It pains me to admit it; I'd love to say something counterintuitive. ( This is Slate , after all.) But I think the problem is Norah, full stop. She can't write songs; she has poor taste in other people's songs. The songs just aren't good enough. She's got a wonderful voice, I'm crazy about it—a lovely sound that's all her own. But she has yet to put it to anything close to optimal use. I hasten to point out: I'm not saying Norah's too wimpy, too easy listening. I'm probably Sade 's biggest fan. But there's a difference between soft and dull. On "Chasing Pirates" the crackerjack band merely accentuates the underlying issue: bad source material. Also, the lyric—oy, the cutesiness! "I'm having the squeams," she sings. That makes two of us.

JW : In four weeks of track-chatting, this is our first disagreement. I will mark the occasion by attempting to nap with both songs on in a repeating iTunes playlist and see which one ultimately does the trick. I didn't mention Jones' cutesiness, but I'm glad you did. For a girl with a serious, husky voice, she can be surprisingly self-infantilizing. This is typically most evident in her videos , heavy on romper-room palettes and preciously dinky sets. The "Chasing Pirates" video is no different—Jones hired a guy who worked on Pirates of the Caribbean 's special effects team, apparently, so that she could pilot an apartment building through Manhattan, wide-eyed (and, I'll add, looking more beautiful than ever). It's a nice idea that goes nowhere. No cannonballs. No peglegs. This fearsome vessel runs on whimsy!

JR : My son liked the video. He's nuts about pirates, though, and the building in the video looks like ours. Also, he's 5 years old. But let's not even get started on insufferable indie-whimsy. We can save that topic for the release of the Fantastic Mr. Fox soundtrack .

I'll say one thing for Norah: Her music is more grown-up than the videos suggest. The woman is actually all about sex and drugs—I'm serious. The sex part is obvious. Her lyrics almost always concern desire, and even when they don't, there's all kinds of longing up in that plush croon of hers. (In a smart New Yorker piece a few years back, Sasha Frere-Jones called Norah's music "one big booty call.") As for the drugs: She's admitted that she smokes weed. She hangs out with Willie Nelson and has told interviewers that she's sampled his stash. People have died sampling Willie's stash. The point is, I believe I detect some 1930s "reefer song"-style lazy-haziness in her sound. Shades of Bea Foote ! Maybe she has something in common with Lil Wayne after all? And maybe that's why her music's a little dullsville? You heard it here first: Norah Jones is stoned out of her gourd. Put that beauty on the cover of High Times !

Until next week, Jonah: arrggh, anchors aweigh, etc.

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Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.

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