Forever in Harmony

If Norah Jones really wanted to record an album of songs her daddy taught her, it probably wouldn’t sound too much like this.

Courtesy of The New York Times

Courtesy of The New York Times

Still, the pop-jazz chanteuse’s new album “Foreverly,” a 12-song collection of duets with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, is a worthy addition to her already strong body of work. The daughter of sitar legend Ravi Shankar, Jones proves a solid harmony partner for Armstrong, who elected to record a song-for-song tribute of the Everly Brothers’ 1958 “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us” (itself a cover of traditional folk songs) after discovering it a couple of years ago.

Jones told Rolling Stone magazine last month that the idea was “to not just copy the record,” a strategy that she and Armstrong largely succeeded in following —  nearly all of their interpretations of the songs feature some combination of change in tempo, key and instrumentation. As a result, it’s not just the sound of the Everlys’ take on the songs that has changed. The very spirit of the record is also different, which is both a good and a bad thing.

Many of the changes that Armstrong and Jones have brought to the original album are marked improvements. Rather than playing every song with a pair of understated acoustic guitars, as their sibling forerunners did, Armstrong and Jones use everything from banjo to fiddle, standup bass to slide guitar, and piano to drums. They also introduce solos into nearly every track, which helps break the monotony and repetition that plagued some of the Everlys’ offerings. As an album by two singers already known as individual vocalists, “Foreverly” smartly diverts from the original by providing room for both Armstrong and Jones to sing unaccompanied.

As much as some of these changes improve upon the original, however, Armstrong and Jones also strip some of the material of its emotion by complicating the arrangements. The Everlys’ formula may grow tiresome after a while, but its basic elements — soft and unthreatening vocals with minimal musical accompaniment — are what add a critical feeling of vulnerability that Armstrong and Jones never seem to capture. Though they shine on less-personal tracks like “Kentucky,” the pair falls far short of the Everly Brothers’ versions of songs rooted in personal relationships, especially “Rockin’ Alone (In An Old Rockin’ Chair).” Their sped-up, peppy version of “Oh So Many Years,” meanwhile, is almost criminal in completely removing the Everlys’ take on the same song, which tells of a person trying to pick up the pieces after having their heart broken.

While the original record grows weary in spots, the brothers’ strongest asset is their ability to tell a story. Armstrong and Jones, on the other hand, sound more like two people singing pleasant harmonies but never quite actually feeling what they’re singing about.

Still, Armstrong and Jones should be credited for their willingness to breathe some new life into the songs, and their voices sound excellent together. Plus, if nothing else, they are bringing the Everly Brothers’ work to a brand new generation of listeners who may think of the record less as “Foreverly,” and more as songs Billie Joe and Norah taught them.

 

ONLY RECOMMENDED IF: You admire the vocal talent of the duo, and want to hear something new outside their regular genres.