Norah Jones Box Set From Analogue Productions: Too Much of a Good Thing?

The issue here isn't Norah Jones, it's the amount. While Jones "burst upon the scene" more than a decade ago while still in her early thirties with her debut album come away with me, she was hardly an overnight sensation. What's heard on that memorable debut is the result of years of live playing at The Living Room, an intimate, lower Manhattan club that encourages artistic growth over headliners.

There, along with a group of revolving, supportive musicians, she honed her performing and songwriting craft until she was ready to record. The daughter of Sue Jones and Ravi Shankar (born Geethali Norah Jones Shankar), surely she was well-counseled by her father in all of this and if not, someone else gave her the best possible advice (co-incidentally, my accountant used to burp her when she was a baby- he managed Ravi for a time and was a co-producer of "Concert For Bangladesh").

When it came time to produce the first album, she or her management brought in the great Arif Mardin who worked over two tracks already produced by Jones and Jay Newland who also engineered the album, while three were produced by Craig Street who has a well-deserved reputation for sensitively producing female artists. Get to know Craig and you'll understand why that works well (the three Street tracks were engineered by Husky Huskolds).

Musicians playing on the album included the sensationally subtle drummer Brian Blade, guitarist Bill Frisell and a group of other musicians if not well known then are better known now. Someone made the choice to record and mix to analog tape—not much of that was happening back then—at Sorcerer Sound and Allaire Studios in New York, with mixing at famed Sear Sound, home of a lot of tube gear and analog tape.

This is a project overseen from the beginning by then Blue Note president Bruce Lundvall (in yet another coincidence he lives literally down the block from me). The entire project from the songs, to the superb recorded sound and packaging just reeks of good taste. And it couldn't have come cheaply. The label or someone made a major financial investment in an unknown's debut album.

The investment paid of as the album sold more than twenty six million copies and won numerous awards. It wasn't that much of a risk really. Jones's amalgam of jazz, country, folk and a touch of rock produced something new and highly attractive to a wide demographic.

The acoustic music was intimately and delicately drawn. Jones' piano surprisingly echoed Floyd Cramer. Her voice had a twenties flapper soft coo quality but it never sounded precious and her delivery produced a soft power. The whole package came across as wholesomely sexy but refreshingly not salacious. When Jones sang "Come Away With Me" what guy didn't want to go? It didn't hurt that she had wholesome, exotic good looks.

Does anyone reading this not have come away with me? Classic Records issued it on 180g vinyl and it was among the label's biggest sellers, mastered from the original analog tapes by Bernie Grundman and pressed at RTI. Great music and superb sonics.

Since then Jones has issued a series of albums that nudged the needle just a bit from the first album's successful formula beginning with 2004's "Feels LIke Home" an album filled with melancholic songs about self-doubt and a break-up. It includes a duet with Dolly Parton. Garth Hudson adds an accordion on one track. The final song "Don't Miss You At All" brought the inner turmoil to a fine finale. The album is like peeking into a diary or in some ways hiding under Norah's bed and sharing hear intimate heartache.

That was followed by 2007's Not Too Late, an even more melancholic and intimately drawn set wherein the singer seems to have not quite gotten over the heartache and thinks maybe her former beau might come back. The album works to perfection, thanks to the deft arrangements, more spare and intimate than before, despite the inclusion of some horns and organ. It might be my favorite of the bunch, something I didn't realize until I sat down and played through the entire box.

Jones issued The Fall in 2009. She picks up where she left off, in a Hi Records kind of Al Green groove with a riff that sounds like The Stones' "Miss You". The album traces a romance. She sings "something about the way he touched me" in "Even Though" but she's hesitant. Eventually all of her negative expectations play out after a delightful series of tunes. The closer, "Man of the Hour" opens with the memorable line: " 'It's him or me,' that's what he said, but I can't choose between a vegan and a pot head." In the end the album's protagonist chooses the secure company of a dog! Thus the great cover shot. It's also a great album.

Little Broken Hearts produced by Danger Mouse was issued in 2012. Can't blame Jones for wanting to try something new but the results are definitely an acquired taste for those who dug the earlier stuff and as is usually the case with Danger Mouse, it's too fucking loud as in compressed to shit and thoroughly unpleasant to listen to, except maybe on a treadmill or running with an iPod. That's where it's aimed but I doubt the Black Keys crowd is buying and the older fans probably won't bite. I like Black Keys. I just wish they too would lay off the compression. The new Dr. John album is great music squashed in the service of iTunes. I just hate it.

The bonus LP features covers culled from outtakes from previous albums, some of which were previously released on limited CD issues, or on DVDs or albums on other labels. It includes covers of tunes by The Everly Brothers, Dylan, Wilco, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and others in Jones's musical wheelhouse. It's a nice compilation.

The packaging is exquisite from the textured box to the highest quality graphics and paper on cardboard jackets. All is absolutely first-rate as are the pressings. The records coming out of QRP are definitely living up the pressing plant's early promise. This kind of drop dead black quiet is precisely what's required for Jones's music and QRP delivers it. Kevin Gray's mastering is equally superb. I compared the Classic come away with me mastered by Bernie Grundman and it's damn good but Gray gets more warmth and transparency from the tape. It's amazing. Classic issued the second and third album too, but at a time when it was having difficulties with 200 gram pressings at its newly set up pressing operation. Jones whistles on "Little Room" from the Not Too Late album. It sounds like she's in the room whistling. I swear!

Too much Jones? That's a judgment call you'll have to make when deciding whether to drop $260 on this set. I was surprised how easily and pleasurable it was to go through the whole box numerous times before writing it up. The sonics throughout are superb other than on the Danger Mouse produced album but even that's been made better than what you'll hear on the seedee—whatever Kevin Gray did to warm it up.

This limited edition box encapsulates an original's decade long output, almost all of which is consistently solid music making, produced and recorded with impeccable taste. If your girlfriend or wife likes Norah, this would make a great Valentine's Day gift and it's sure to score big points.

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COMMENTS
my new username's picture

While I don't begrudge getting the best possible sound from records I'm a little sanguine about the inclusion of "Little Broken Hearts" in the set and not because of Danger Mouse's, banal, low fi aesthetic (if ever there was an oxymoron, that's it ...) 

Rather, it's the curious timing of an audiophile iteration that occurs at the same time as original's "we made it for iTunes" existence. The standard $20 LP is a 2-disk, 180gm on "fancy" white vinyl, the kind of thing a collector or audiophile might want.

And yet the 24/44.1k digital master apparently holds enough treasures for Gray to be hired to remaster for a 200gm? Can you call it a "remaster" if the body's not even cold yet on the original?

Waiter, check please! 

Last year I paid an additional $5 to get the 180gm version of a new title so that my Audiophile Club card didn't get revoked by buying the 150gm version sitting next to it. So it's all my fault. I don't mind paying for reissues later, when new masterings are possible, but this Good/Better/Best mentality record labels have with brand-new LP titles is ... too much.

On the other hand perhaps this is just how it's done today. Remasters right up front that for whatever reason sound better. Case in point: The El Camino 2xLP 45rpm version doesn't sound "like an MP3" as you once wrote nor like the standard LP you reviewed. I'm not claiming it transforms into a sonic marvel but it's clearly better.

AQ Shane's picture

I had the same experience with El Camino- the 33 is one of the worst sounding LPs I've ever heard let alone owned. So bad it was very leery of trying the 45 RPM RSD pressing. However, it is much,  much better sounding. Now, on a 1-10 scale it might have gone from 3 to 6, but as "my username" states, clearly better.

Michael Fremer's picture

I've heard that about the double 45 from many people now.... funny because I would have thought the compression was in the mastering and that spreading a compressed production over four 45rpm sides couldn't possibly improve things by much but I guess I wuz rong!

AQ Shane's picture

Like I says, it might have only gone from a 3 to a 6 on the Fremer dial, but the 45 is a noticeable improvement... not nearly as sucky, for what that's worth in today's market!

Paul Boudreau's picture

For me personally it would be.  I like her stuff well enough but sometimes I wish she would sit on a tack and not be quite as "Snorah." 

"Mastered for iTunes" - a scary phrase.

Shaffer's picture

I bought a copy of The Fall. The pressing, itself, isn't perfect. A slight degree of no-fill on the second side stemming into the second cut. Otherwise, flat and quiet. Sonically, I expected to be blown away. Maybe that was the problem. It's not as if the record isn't impressive, just not impressive enough.

Michael Fremer's picture

Given the studio vagabonding I doubt it was an AAA recording. But I'll try to find out. I'd say if it was ProTools, it's impressive for ProTools. 

I think though, that the sound they were after is kind of compacted and somewhat closed in... it's a "tight" sound on purpose I'd say....because of the rhythms...

John G's picture

I have a copy of Little Broken Hearts on the way.  I ordered it along with the new Richard Thompson.  I got it for a cheap price and the site indicated it's from the Parlophone label so maybe it's a British pressing?  I think I would have taken a pass on this one had I read your review beforehand. I hate loud compressed recordings!  One reason I avoid CDs.  Oh well, at least the album cover looks cool, I can add it to the recent Dr. John that hangs on my wall.   Looking forward to the RT which from all indications should be a good one.

Michael Fremer's picture

Let us know your reaction to "LBH" please....

John G's picture

What this turned out to be is a Blue Note double LP on white vinyl that others have mentioned.  Like you said, it is loud and highly compressed like a iTunes download.  Funny that it's spread out over two discs with about 10 minutes of music per side.

Interesting thing is that recently on the way back in forth to dropping my daughter to school we have been listening to her iPod Synced to the car stereo.  In the car I notice the difference between iTunes downloaded songs and ones she burned from CDs.  I find myself actually preferring the iTunes downloaded songs.  It must be because of the high noise level in the car and the itunes songs are more compressed.  I suppose that is the reason for for making these loud recordings.  I just wish they wouldn't do it for any vinyl recordings!

integriscdp's picture

I have not heard the vinyl or CD versions of LBH, but I do have both the 24-bit HDTracks download and the Kevin Gray mastered Analogue Productions SACD, and both of those fly in the face of your comments WRT compression.  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the sonics of both hi-res digital versions, especially the Analogue Productions SACD.

Another post mentioned similarities to the sonics of The Black Keys - El Camino.  I have that CD, and yes that disc is compressed beyond death, but the hi-res versions of LBH have absolutely nothing in common with that.

I'm not saying LBH will be everyone's system demo recording, but if every new recording hitting the streets these days were at least on par with the hi-res LBH releases, the music industry would be in much better place than the awful state it's currently in.

AQ Shane's picture

I bought the box, and taken by itself there's nothing disappointing. The box is nice, the QRP LPs are simply sensational in every way. Come Away with Me on Classic was one of the best LPs I've ever heard, and the new pressing is, remarkably, even better still. But do the math and it's a more questionable value- the individual QRP pressings of the five titles sell for $34.99 each for four of them and $44.99 for Little Broken Hearts (the most musically and sonically questionable release of the lot). That's $185 buying individually. So, at $260 be aware that it's an extra $75 for a nice box and the additional LP record of covers. Just sayin.'

Michael Fremer's picture

That is all true....

vince's picture

Funny, I had the same reaction to both the Little Broken Hearts and El Camino as Michael and some of you.  We pre-ordered the Little Broken Hearts and must have gotten one of the early pressings because there are little dark swirls in the white vinyl.    Probably vestiges of black vinyl from a previous job.  My wife and I have only listed to it once.  It was like standing in a wet road, at night, looking at truck headlights coming down the road.  The glare was overwhelming.  Same thing with El Camino.  Just too much for the brain to handle.  Not music, but a cartoon of music.

We have all of Norah's other records and we listen to them all the time (a mix of Classic and QRP).  I hope she continues to explore music.  I look forward to hearing what she has to say and will almost certainly purchase whatever she makes next.  I hope she shops elsewhere for production, though.  Indeed, another Danger Mouse product will not be purchased by me.

Jim Tavegia's picture

I have all her CDs and the Feels LIke Home LP as well, but at $260 there are too many other things from QRP that I want to buy. At $30 each I am getting more picky about what I buy in my old age. 

Rayman's picture

I get that.

I just don't get her as a jazz/lounge singer. Guess I'm just a hayseed at heart.

Her country stuff is great.

Chad how 'bout an AP vinyl reissue of The Willies?

 

Edit: So cool. There is a Classic Records version. My lucky day!!!

madfloyd's picture

Is this album not included?  It's my favorite of all her material.  

mavfan1's picture

While it's sexier to say she developed in a little Manhattan club here are her own words about it:

"I played in restaurants and piano bars for about a year, using my music as my job because I'd never thought about doing anything else," she says. 

"But I was tired of the bad audiences, so I took a job as a waitress to make my living and planned on playing one or two really good gigs each week just before I signed with Blue Note."

This is from an article from the school paper at The University of North Texas, where she studied jazz for two years until the summer of 1999 when she moved to New York.   She was then "discovered" by Blue Note in 2000.   

It doesn't seem she had to spend years at the club in Manhattan before she was discovered though she certainly continued to perform there afterwards. 

 http://www.unt.edu/northtexan/archives/s03/norah.htm

HT Guy's picture

Okay so I don't own one of Norah's vinyls and would like to buy a few to see how I like her music.  Have heard her work on radio, expecially XM.  So what are the top two LPs and which one do I buy first?  Assume everyone recommends QRP?

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eca's picture

Okay so I don't own one of Norah's vinyls and would like to buy a few to see how I like her music.  Have heard her work on radio, expecially XM.  So what are the top two LPs and which one do I buy first?  Assume everyone recommends QRP? Car audio forum

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dave11's picture

What was the last song or album that Norah Jones has come out with. I have been listening to the same music of hers over and over again. Click here to find out though I am hoping that she switches up the music she sings a little bit in order to give some contrast to he songs. All her music seems to be he same. Thanks

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rakalm's picture

This morning, I started the day finding that out that Pete Seeger had died.  Just bought a used version of Broadside 2 this weekend which must have come from a well used library collectiion.  Horribly noisy, but I suffered before pulling out my pristine copy of Circles & Seasons.  I was sailing down that Golden River with the man himself.  I only have 3 autographs (Pete Seeger, Norah Jones and the all of The Little Willies, and someone who doesn't apply here).  I met Pete in Central Park at a free park concert and a park clean up project in June of 71, I believe.  

This led me to, oddly enough, listening to my newly acquired Norah Jones "The Collection" (thank you Pete, my wife gave it to me, yes, women are the best engineers).  A reference to a song Pete does on Circles & Seasons.  To the point, Norah provided the comfort I needed for such a loss.  These pressings are without a doubt amongst the best I have ever heard.   In the room with just the whistle.  Michael, she's in the room the whole time.  What's the connection, one may ask.  Norah Jones and Pete Seeger?

Just this, folk music as Pete had elaborated upon is not to be defined.  Upon leaving Harvard, one his professors said something to the effect that you'll never define folk music, you can just study it.  Norah Jones is an artist who was brave enough after nearly unprecendented intitial success to continue to explore and to move forward and stretch the boundaries.  I hope she got to meet Pete.  They have (had) a lot in common.

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