Southern comfort

The public relations machinery behind Norah Jones’ debut is some of the most disproportionate effort placed on an album in recent memory.

When writers from Newsweek start name-dropping Alicia Keys to describe Jones, there’s a definite whiff of publicist strong-arming.

Keys and Jones couldn’t come from more different musical planets. The former traffics in slick, hyper-produced R&B, the latter in intimate, country-tinged cabaret vocals.

No sleight to Jones’ house guitarist Jesse Harris, but Bill Frisell should have been all over this album. Fortunately, the Seattle-based downtown New York City legend shows up on “The Long Day Is Over”, and does he ever sound totally at home.

Like Frisell, Jones performs jazz music with the heart of a country artist.

Although her singing affects a smokey Dinah Washington-by-way-of-Erika Badu timbre, her music is thoroughly grounded in twang and heartbreak, all without using a single steel pedal.

Jones’ ghostly cover of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” sums up the entire album nicely — she captures the essence of the song without sounding anything like a country diva.

On “Turn Me On” and the album’s title track, Jones tackles Memphis blues with uncanny coolness, while on “Seven Years” and “Nightingale”, she dabbles in the singer-songwriter prettiness that made the careers of Shawn Colvin and Lyle Lovett.

“Lonestar” could have been a demo outtake from an Emmylou Harris recording session with Daniel Lanois. Lucinda Williams could have applied her rough-hewned drawl on “Feeling the Same Way”, and Mandy Barnett could have fleshed out the Patsy Cline potential of “Don’t Know Why” and “One Flight Down”.

If anything, Jones has probably made an album closer to the spirit of country than most self-styled country artists. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill could cover Bruce Robison songs till their blue in the faces, and they just might reach the kind of immediacy of Jones.

While Jones, who was raised in Dallas, infuses her songs with a southern sensibility, Come Away With Me is far more versatile than anything Music Row could ever produce.

Keeping her minimalist arrangements strictly to a tight-knit house band, Jones avoids the country pitfall of emotive excess. Come Away With Me occupies a creative space where whispering expresses more than belting and categorization is just a nice suggestion.

In other words, people who wouldn’t be caught dead handling a Willie Nelson record can walk out of a music store with Jones’ album in one hand and their pride in another.

P.S. Any chance Jones can snag Frisell and producer Wayne Horvitz for her next album?