Norah Jones shouldn't really be a star. Gifted but humble, beautiful but schlumpy, she's a shy Manhattan boho who'd rather order takeout than strut a red carpet. In interviews, she seems mortified about her mega-success: 15 million records, eight Grammys, eternal rotation at baby showers and organic food co-ops. Sometimes it's hard to believe that such a phenomenal, torchy, seen-it-all voice could belong to someone so low-key. She makes Corinne Bailey Rae seem wild by comparison.
That she's so refreshingly normal for a chanteuse is, of course, what makes her appealing. Still, Jones now seems determined to spice things up. On last year's ''Sucker,'' a duet with former Faith No More singer Mike Patton for his Peeping Tom project, she delivered the word ''motherf---er.'' And she regularly performs with a glammy New York rock band.
Given Jones' recent attempts to stretch, one might expect Not Too Late to be a radical departure from her jazz-blues debut, 2002's Come Away With Me, and her countrified 2004 follow-up, Feels Like Home. But sonically, at least, the album takes only a small step away from the latte-lover mainstream. Produced by her bassist and boyfriend, Lee Alexander, Not Too Late has a slightly rougher, home-studio sound, yet the music slow, gorgeous dream-pop ballads is sleepier than ever. There's little of the sultry lounge of Come Away With Me, except the safety-net single, ''Thinking About You.'' With its sexy, cocktail-party swing, the tune (written eight years ago) could be her first real radio hit since ''Don't Know Why.''
The biggest difference on Not Too Late is that Jones is gunning for songwriter credibility. While she penned a few tracks on her last two records, here she writes or co-writes every song. And for the first time, Jones wants to address issues as well as romantic longing. She takes stabs at state-of-America critiques, but treads lightly, as if she's worried about offending someone. On the haunted opening track, ''Wish I Could,'' a woman misses a soldier lover. Jones laments the last presidential election in ''My Dear Country,'' deeming the winner ''deranged,'' but reassures us that ''I cherish you, my dear country'' and that she values her freedom. ''Sinkin' Soon,'' which obliquely compares the U.S. to a leaky boat with a wayward captain, is a catchy hobo-cabaret jam with trombone and pots-and-pans percussion. Jones sounds happiest here, like she's found her new comfort zone: a cool chick leading some old friends, slightly edgier but still safe enough for Starbucks. B-