Ode to Norah Jones’ ‘Chasing Pirates’

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The advantage of blogging is that you can publish whatever you want, whenever you want, on-topic or not.

Sometimes a guy just has to get away from the Connecticut Senate race, death in pro wrestling, and the copyright wars. To do that these days, I kick back and play Norah Jones’ “Chasing Pirates.” For my money, it is the most perfectly crafted pop single since “Conceived,” the minor 2006 hit by Beth Orton.

(And yes, I have a thing for felicitous female voices. Shoot me.)

“Conceived” had sent me diving into Orton’s full oeuvre, which turned out not to measure up to that song’s lightning-in-a-bottle incandescence. Jones, of course, is a different story, having burst on the scene with instantly recognizable and transcendent crossover talent that made her the It Girl of 2002. I don’t apologize for being slow to the party. That is my way. I discovered the Beatles in 1972.

Except for knowing what I like, I know squat about music. So before putting fingertip to keyboard, I rehearsed this essay with one of my sons, a trumpeter who played and occasionally soloed with the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble, and whose musical enthusiasms are both catholic and tasteful. Here’s the best I can come up with.

First, I do not recommend that you run out and view the music video of “Chasing Pirates” on YouTube. The video is a plausible exploitation of Jones’ multiracial beauty and waifish mannerisms, but the viewing experience has the unfortunate effect of reducing the song’s ethereal imagery to prosaic narrative. Instead, I suggest consuming the aural core without sensory filters. Don’t even download the audio track; just wait for it to land in its regular rotation on a radio station such as San Francisco’s KFOG.

What you’ll immediately notice about “Chasing Pirates” is that it’s built around a singular riff and bass line. That’s an old device of pop-hook manipulation. Bo Diddley did it. So did Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” and Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue.” And, of course, the entire genre of funk beats us over the head with it. Now Norah Jones does it, but in a tantalizingly small package, and with the breathy and understated tones that have led some critics to deride her as “Snorah Jones.”

I have not been a partisan in that debate; I was not a fan, and knew Jones simply as a gifted musician with uneven material. But “Chasing Pirates” shows why her detractors have it wrong. Jones has the voice of an angel – obviously – but her stylings aren’t just seductive,  they’re searching. Like jazz vocalists going all the way back to Louis Armstrong, she knows how to coo, illegally and irresistibly, off the beat.

Contrast Jones in “Chasing Pirates” with Brandi Carlile’s “Dreams,” another current hit with spare architecture. Jones is a singer of preternatural depth. Carlile is a pretty good warbler – a modern-day Linda Ronstadt with a great instrument but a mediocre grasp of drama and dynamics. Dreams don’t usually scream, and Carlile (like Ronstadt mangling Roy Orbison) does too much screaming.

The last thing Jones’ pipes and phrasing facilitate is lyricism. I don’t know whether Jones writes her own stuff, and I have enough cynical background in the culture industry to realize that it’s a racket and the names on the credits don’t always tell the truth. I’m not going to bother looking it up because it doesn’t matter. Whoever composed the melody and words of “Chasing Pirates,” Jones’ performance owns them.

Check out the rhyme scheme of the chorus. Abandoning the cheap trick of rhyming at the end of the line – or the somewhat heftier technique of a false rhyme – Jones buries hers in the middle of the line “My mind’s racing / from chasing pirates.” The juxtaposition of “racing” and “chasing” is almost unbearable, allowing Norah to draw out “pirates” across the rest of the measure, and a little differently each time.

Enough exegesis. For the next two minutes and forty-two seconds, just shut up, listen, and weep.

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