Review: Norah Jones and Billie Joe Armstrong – Foreverly

By Gnome The development of Rock music encompassed sounds from all around America, incorporating blues, jazz, R&B, country, Latin music, bluegrass and folk. The Everly Brothers, with their close...

By Gnome

The development of Rock music encompassed sounds from all around America, incorporating blues, jazz, R&B, country, Latin music, bluegrass and folk. The Everly Brothers, with their close harmony singing both sublime and forceful and knowledge of traditional country and folk songs, added grace and grit to the Rock and Roll stew. The Everly Brothers’ music has proved to be both enormously influential (one listen to Beatles gives you an idea of how important the Everlys are) and enduring.

“Foreverly” is a record both completely unexpected and completely welcome. Billie Joe Armstrong, who is most famous as the leader of Green Day, discovered Songs Our Daddy Taught Us—The Everly Brothers’ 1958 album in which they revisit many traditional folk and country songs—became enamored of it and decided that he wanted to cover it in its entirety. He wanted to add a little twist to the proceedings by duetting with a woman, and his first choice, unsurprisingly, was Norah Jones.

Like the Everlys in 1958, Armstrong and Jones sing these tunes with respect but not with stodgy reverence. Instead, Armstrong and Jones, along with the able backing of their band, add touches of 50s rock and classic country to the arrangements, giving these old songs a new feel. In an interview, Armstrong noted that he and Jones decided not to listen to any other arrangements of these songs but the ones on the 1958 album. Going into the sessions, neither artist was sure how their voices would blend, given their vastly different approaches to singing.

As soon as Armstrong and Jones begin with “Roving Gambler,” which is turned into a country blues shuffle, any doubt as to whether their voices would match is silenced. Of course, no one should be surprised at the suppleness and power of Norah Jones’ singing, but it is Armstrong’s voice here that is the revelation. He shows a range and control of tone that is remarkable, and he can sing with both fire and subtlety.

“Long Time Gone” finds Armstrong and Jones lightly swinging in their rendition of the classic Tex Ritter weeper. Armstrong and Jones hit the high notes with style and the byplay between Jones’ piano and Armstrong’s guitar is simply lovely. “The Lightning Express” tells the story of a boy who is trying to get home to his mother and features Charlie Burnham, who added the excellent harp on “Roving Gambler,” on mandolin. The trilling mandolin and tinkling piano add a sweet melancholy air to the song.

“That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine” is another tune from a singing cowboy, in this case, the great Gene Autry, where Jones shows that she can play a mean country piano. “Down in the Willow Garden” and “Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet” are stately waltzes where Jones and Armstrong  are singing gently and softly. “Oh So Many Years,” is a stellar track which recalls the work that Emmylou Harris did with Gram Parsons. Jones and Armstrong again show that not only their voices are in harmony, but that their piano and guitar playing inhabit a wonderfully intuitive space, with Jones’ Floyd Cramer riffs against Armstrong’s fiery rockabilly soloing.

Armstrong’s singing is front and center on “Barbara Allen,” and he seems to be channeling Roger McGuinn in his vocal approach. His phrasing is wry and spare and is ably supported by Jones’ higher lines. Burnham’s violin adds a nice bluegrass touch that matches nicely with Dan Reiser’s assertive brushwork and Tim Lunzel’s steady bass.

“Rockin’ Alone” sounds eerily close to the actual Everly Brothers, which is a testament to how good Armstong and Jones have captured the phrasing of the brothers. Jones takes over on “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out Of Jail,” adding all the sadness she can muster as she takes on the voice of a mother pleading for her son’s freedom. The arrangement has all the feel of a funeral dirge, and Armstrong’s singing is at its most subdued. “Kentucky” has a gently swaying Caribbean feel that adds a nice twist to this ode to the Everly Brothers’ home state. Jones is wonderfully ethereal     and Armstrong supports her high flights with his smooth low harmony.

Jones and Armstrong chose to resequence Songs Our Daddy Taught Us and closed out the album with the only Everly original on the initial release, a song written from the point of view of a dead child. “Put My Little Shoes Away” is in the style of a lullaby, and the singers caress the lyrics with tenderness and sensitivity that cuts through the potentially maudlin sentiment and gets to the sorrow at the song’s core.

Foreverly is a testament to the enduring quality of traditional folk and country songs, the continuing influence of the Everly Brothers, and the talents of Armstrong and Jones. Their vocal and instrumental compatibility makes me hope that they decide to collaborate on more projects. Even if Foreverly is just a one-off, it is a sweet and beautiful introduction to the Everly Brothers and the music that inspired them.

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Gnome – Senior Contributing Writer

Gnome is a male-assigned genderqueer academic, educator, musician, and vinyl junkie who is absolutely thrilled to have the chance to write about music. When not learnin’ em good, Gnome is making the occasionally valiant attempt to finish a dissertation.