Norah Jones has nonetheless attracted an impressive, varied roster of A-list collaborators over the course of her career, and in what turns out to be a clever, revealing spin on the standard "greatest hits" package, Jones's latest album, …Featuring Norah Jones, collects 18 of the best tracks that have been borne from her collaborations and side projects. However familiar Jones's languid sense of phrasing and soothing vocal timbre may be by now, the album surprises as her most spirited, wide-ranging release to date.
The lite jazz of "Baby, It's Cold Outside," a duet with frequent collaborator Willie Nelson, is the most predictable track here, a bit of Starbucks-ready background music that finds Jones and Nelson engaged in a playful call and response. "Here We Go Again," with Ray Charles, is a far more staid and less compelling recording, and it remains a completely WTF? winner for the Record of the Year Grammy award a few years back. It's easily the weakest track on …Featuring Norah Jones, which instead spends the bulk of its running time attempting to showcase the range of Jones's talents as a singer and arranger.
To that end, the set is a success. Opening with the Little Willies's blues-inflected "Love Me," the album often emphasizes the heavy influence of traditional country and roots forms in Jones's music. "Bull Rider," a duet with Sasha Dobson, and a note-perfect live rendition of "Loretta" with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings both prove Jones's facility with those particular styles. Far less expected, however, are the tracks that allow her to serve as one hell of a hook girl to Q-Tip (on "Life Is Better") and Talib Kweli (on "Soon the New Day"). That Jones can actually sing on key puts her well ahead of the likes of Keri Hilson in that role, and that the productions on both of these proper hip-hop songs are smooth and uncluttered keeps them from sounding at all out of place alongside duets with Ryan Adams, M. Ward, and Dolly Parton.
Even when Jones misses her mark (her bossa nova cover of "More Than This" with Charlie Hunter is awkward and soporific, and "Little Lou, Prophet Jack, Ugly John" is an especially inert Belle and Sebastian track), there's a consistency to her performances and the overall production style of each track that suggests she's well aware of her strengths. Each of these tracks sounds like a truly collaborative effort, with Jones's unique sensibilities coming through as clearly as those of her cohorts. In that regard, …Featuring Norah Jones may attempt to cast her in something of a supporting role, but it's still definitively a Norah Jones record, and a solid one at that.