3 stars (out of 4)
Norah Jones is a rare singer in a world where outrage passes for pop currency: a modest one. She understates almost everything, sometimes to a fault.
It worked well enough to turn her 2002 debut, “Come Away With Me,” into a runaway success, but ever since she’s become increasingly predictable. Her fifth studio album, “… Little Broken Hearts” (Blue Note), tries to spice things up with a little role-playing in collaboration with producer of the moment, Brian Burton, a k a Danger Mouse.
In small-combo settings dipped in reverberating guitars and keyboards that chime or drizzle notes like raindrops, there’s enough eerie atmosphere to evoke a film-noir soundtrack, one that plays out over the image of a dead body in an alley while a trench-coated, chain-smoking femme fatale disappears into the mist. In that sense, it expands the work the two did together on Danger Mouse’s “Rome” project, released last year, which paid homage to Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti Western scores.
“… Little Broken Hearts” ties 12 takes on fractured relationships into an extended mood piece. “Good Morning” sets the tone of dream-like intimacy, Jones’ voice turning an innocuous gesture – “I’m folding my hand” – into an unlikely yet strangely haunting chorus. Jones’ narrators are hardly all victims, crying for what might have been. She turns accusatory on “She’s 22,” and downright murderous on “Miriam.” Only “Happy Pills” breaks the somber mood, but it’s deceptive: a jaunty take about fleeing an ex.
Not everything works. The closing “All a Dream” is a six-minute drag back to sleepy-time Norah. But mostly, Jones plays her part in this career left-turn with chilled and sometimes chilling resolve.