Norah Jones - “Pick Me up off the Floor” (Blue Note ***)
Norah Jones, we need you now. The torch-singing pianist has made quietly satisfying music ever since her 2002 debut “Come Away With Me,” navigating the world between jazz and pop, and throwing in a little country for an extra heartache.
Jones’ records are always tasteful and never in the slightest hurry. And in the frantic, no-attention-span world we used to live in, her air of imperturbability could seem a little dull, so becalmed that it sometimes bordered on the soporific.
But now it’s a quality that comes in handy, amid global pandemic, economic collapse, and civil unrest. If your nerves are rattled, never fear: Norah Jones is here.
“Pick Me up off the Floor” shines from the start. Its opener, “How I Weep,” makes its sorrow felt in the subtle interplay between her piano, Paul Wiancko’s cello, and Ayane Kozasa’s violin.
The album grew out of a series of mini-collaborations — with poet Sarah Oda, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, and others — but hangs together cohesively. It revs up occasionally, as on the gospel-fired “Flame Twin.” But usually, “Pick Me up” is happy to settle into a deeply comfortable, languorous groove that leaves space for ace musicians like drummer Brian Blade to shine.
It really finds itself in a stretch of three thematically linked songs about essential stuff: “This Life,” “To Live,” and “I’m Alive.” In the last one, written with Tweedy, Jones sings about a woman finding her strength. This first captures a common feeling these days: “This life as we know it,” Jones sings, “is over.” — Dan DeLuca
Mondo Cozmo - “New Medicine” (Last Gang ***)
Josh Ostrander got his start in indie bands Laguardia and Eastern Conference Champions. Then he rebooted his career in Los Angeles with the solo project Mondo Cozmo, and struck gold with the hit “Shine” from 2017’s “Plastic Soul.” On “New Medicine,” his second Mondo Cozmo album, he makes it clear from the start that he’s not interested in simply mimicking that last number’s feel-good groove.
Opener “Black Cadillac” is an insistent, fuzzed-out rocker that lifts liberally from the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man.” Ostrander is backed on that track by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club guitarist Pete Hayes and drummer Leah Shapiro. Hayes helped produce the album and no doubt contributed to the big rock guitar sound that gives it a harder edge than “Plastic Soul.”
With echoes of ’90s bands such as Primal Scream and the Verve — as well as of Beck’s hip-hop blues — Ostrander also mines familiar pleasures. As he proved with “Shine,” he knows how to mass backing vocals (and sometimes horns) into something triumphant and joyful. That’s even the case when he’s slipping in barbed references to Brett Kavanaugh (on “Black Cadillac”), the oppressive evening news (“Upside Down”) or his own self-destructive tendencies (“Generator” and elsewhere). — Steve Klinge
Dedicated Men of Zion - “Can’t Turn Me Around” (Bible & Tire ***)
Bible & Tire Recording Co. was founded by Bruce Watson, of the Fat Possum label, to revive the glories of the Memphis sacred soul tradition. With this album by the Dedicated Men of Zion, a gospel quartet out of North Carolina, the results are sensational. (Not to be confused with the Sensational Barnes Brothers, another Bible & Tire act that works the same territory with similarly sublime results.)
On “Can’t Turn Me Around,” the singers are backed by a crew of topflight Memphis roots musicians as they deliver obscurities from the catalog of the Bluff City’s D-Vine Spiritual label. The songs are uniformly great, while the music borrows as much from Memphis’ secular musical heritage as it does from the sacred, which of course were pretty close in the first place. Anthony Daniels, the eldest of the group, which also includes his son Antwan, has a background in rhythm-and-blues as well as church music.
“Father, Guide Me, Teach Me” starts the set by locking into a tough R&B groove punctuated by Will Sexton’s stinging guitar as the singing grows increasingly pleading. “Down Here Lord” and the horn-accented “I Feel Alright” echo classic Memphis soul, and the title song simmers with steady resolve.
The more straight-up gospel numbers, like the roof-raising “Leaning on the Lord” and “Work Until My Days Are Done,” are also transcendent. To borrow Bible & Tire’s motto, listening to this is a great way to “retread your soul,” and a perfect tonic for the times. — Nick Cristiano
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