The country aspect is somewhat diminished in Jones's newest music, diverted into a band she's formed called the Little Willies. But it's still there in the plain forms of her songwriting, which comes to the fore on her latest album, Not Too Late. Jones wrote most of the music with her longtime romantic and musical partner, bassist Lee Alexander, and it marks quite a departure from her first two albums. The musical accompaniments are strikingly minimal, mostly acoustic guitar, bass or bowed cello, and Jones's own sparse keyboards. Of albums that have reached the top spot on the U.S. pop charts, it's certainly the quietest in years, maybe decades. One song features a whistled tune, another a kind of muttered scatting through a trombone. Jones's compositions are mostly romantic, with excursions into Tom Waits-style black retro and a wry response to the last election. They're not virtuoso efforts, but they fit her voice in a way that heightens the extremely reflective atmosphere to a degree where it becomes hypnotic.
Taken together, the songs and accompaniment suggest an artist who has asserted control over her career even after reaching a level of fame where such a thing is usually impossible. The Michigan Theater, where Jones appears on Friday, May 4, should be the right place for the unusually intimate experience Jones's new music offers: Hill Auditorium, which she surely could have filled, is too big, and the concrete walls of the Power Center would have detracted from the making-music-in-the-living-room quality of her latest material.
[Review published May 2007]
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