El Madmo – El Madmo (2008)

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The music of Norah Jones is the elephant in the living room here at Something Else! that we probably can’t ignore forever. Her brand of country-flavored jazz had given millions of people in our age demographic a reason to buy their first CD in years. Still, we’ve resisted chatting her up because while she’s undeniably a talented singer, piano player and composer, we found her music to be, well, dull.

Now, before anyone gets themselves into a tizzy over that little “d” word, I have listened to last year’s Not Too Late and it was a huge stride toward excitement. With the late Arif Mardin no longer helming her solo recording projects, Ravi Shankar’s little girl seemed liberated to stretch out beyond the lounge singer songstress identity that he helped to craft for her. I’m not ready to jump on the bandwagon just yet, but I’m listening.

Beyond that, Jones has seemingly been hellbent on resisting being typecast as a leading light for jazz lite . It started innocently enough just a year after her sensational debut Come Away With Me when she reluctantly joined The Peter Mailick Group to sing some modern electric blues for the guitarist’s outfit for his New York album of 2003. In 2006, she was part of a one-off group that produced a relaxed Western swing record eponymously titled The Little Willies. The year before, she appeared on a Foo Fighters record.

None of these things, though, sets up Norah’s followers for what she unleashed this past May. El Madmo, with it’s stripped down, simple brand of alt-rock, is as far from what Norah Jones is known for as one can imagine.

Jones culled a couple of members of her Handsome Band backing group—Daru Oda (bass) and Andrew Borger (drums)–and recast them with new names: “El” and “Mo,” respectively. Jones herself is “Maddie,” thus, the pasted-together band moniker. With the girls made up in kitschy wigs and eye makeup resembling masks while Mo sports an oversized afro, El Madmo looks vaguely like crime fighters, but the only offense they seem to be battling is taking oneself too seriously.

On the faster tracks, like “Carlo!” and “Rock Yer Balls Off,” El Madmo comes off emulating early B-52’s, without the cheesy organ and Fred Schneider’s ad libs. On the slower, dreary tracks such as “Head In A Vise” and “I Like It Low” it isn’t all that out of place with Jones’ proper work, that is, if you can imagine these songs played with piano instead of guitar.

Even while these ditties mostly appear to be made up hastily, they’re admittedly catchy enough to earn a few repeat listens. El Madmo didn’t equate lighthearted fun with “doggin’ it.”

The other out of character angle of this whole getup for Jones is that she traded in her Steinway for a Fender Mustang. And for someone who isn’t known as a six string strummer, she doesn’t embarrass herself at all. Maybe that course on Guitar 101 back at UNT finally got put to use. All kidding aside, though, the playing is clean and most importantly, gets the job done. She’s also got a bit of a crush for that whammy bar, but those bent chords do fit well with the overall game plan.

No amount of campy college rock can obscure the fact that Jones is one hell of a singer; when her vocal ascends to almost a scream in “Sweet Adrenaline” it’s still too smooth and controlled to have possibly come from a punk rocker who cut her teeth wailing away alongside Patti Smith records in her bedroom after school.

With her alter-ego Maddie fronting a little garage band with a faux punk attitude, Norah Jones seems to be giving a one-fingered salute to all those soccer moms and accountant dads who listen to her proper records. But if you look carefully past all the heavy eye makeup, you’d find that she’s winking at them, too.


     

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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