Album Review: Billie Joe + Norah – Foreverly

Show of hands if the first time you heard Billie Joe Armstrong’s voice — emanating from a battered copy of Dookie in junior high, say — you fantasized about his taking on early 20th-century country traditionals. No one? Well, maybe Norah Jones, the jazz-folk sensation Baby Boomers love to love, with a noted history of taming everyone from Dave Grohl to Andre 3000, saw this one coming. The two bonded during a performance with Stevie Wonderthe story goes, and so, on his wife’s suggestion, Armstrong recruited the talented Jones to lend her voice to a full-album rendition of his favorite Everly Brothers recording, 1958’s oft-forgotten Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. Mediocre on every count, the resulting set of tracks won’t change anyone’s mind about any of the artists involved (that’s presuming it won’t make you like the Everlys less), but as a fleeting curiosity, it’s precisely what it says it is — with little imagination to spare.

First, ditch the “Come Away With Me” jokes — it’s very much a good thing that Jones hopped aboard. With the singer’s smoky pipes set in two-part harmony with the Green Day vocalist’s sorely limited range, an otherwise unbearable experiment is elevated to merely passable. You only have to suffer a solo Armstrong performance on the traditional “Barbara Allen”, which the vocalist tries livening up into a fiddly, heavily strummed, Warning-style acoustic number. The peppy tempo, coupled with the clear-as-day arrangement, effectively neuters everything evocative about the Songs rendition (and that’s if you’re willing to overlook Armstrong’s cringey take on lyrics like “Twas the merry month of May/ When flowers were a’blooming”). Jones is miles more comfortable taking on the tropes of country music given her background (notably 2004’s Feels Like Home), and so it’s her voice that wraps around Armstrong’s in duet, obscuring his distinct California whine and even making for pretty enough harmonies on the tender “Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet” and on Bradley Kincaid’s “Lightning Express”.

Covering the Everly Brothers — and this album in particular — is a curious thing, given that the brothers wrote none of these songs, and so the pressure is on Armstrong and Jones to breathe some new life into traditional country numbers. Padded out by bassist Tim Luntzel and drummer Dan Rieser in the studio, the ensemble decidedly does not. The acoustic strums and halfhearted harmonica squalls of “Gambling Man” set the tone early, continued by the cartoon-Western riff that starts “Long Time Gone” — this is blandly straightforward country-pop, inoffensive at best, instantly forgettable at worst. The production is crystal-clear to the point of tastelessness, and yet the performances sound like they could be virtually anyone.

Not that the pairing ever could have been expected to recapture the old-timey eeriness, at once intimate and distant, that hangs over the Everly Brothers’ recordings (nor did they try to). But, Foreverly plays it so stiflingly, maddeningly straight that the slightest hint of reverb or subtlety is grounds for excitement. The dreamy piano flourishes on “Lightning Express” are one such pleasure, as are the dramatic snare hits and twangy solo on “Down in the Willow Garden”, a minor highlight. Then there’s Karl Davis’ “Kentucky”, which, despite its draggy lushness, still feels like one of the more strikingly disingenuous moments here, if you can imagine a bratty west coast pop-punk vocalist crooning lines like “Kentucky/ I miss your laurels and your red bud trees” in harmony with the daughter of one Ravi Shankar. Reimagining country tropes that have become so clichéd — both musically and lyrically — is a tall order for anyone. Though he can tackle rock operas and folk-inflected pop albums decently enough, Armstrong’s artistic range simply isn’t up to it.

But, this is a novelty project, a one-off, so it’s good for a curiosity spin, if to confirm that an LP chock full of Billie Joe Armstrong/Norah Jones duets is, in fact, an item that exists in the world. If you’ve read this far, chances are you’re a fan of Jones, or Green Day, or the Everly Brothers, or some reasonable combination of the above. Lord knows the imagined record-buying, Grammy-viewing public — at least as it existed a decade ago — is. So here, take it: have a record that incorporates all three of those artists and, somehow, strangely, adds value to none. Talking to Rolling Stone last week, Armstrong mused on his fascination with Songs Our Daddy Taught Us: “Man, what made [the Everly Brothers] want to make this record?” Listeners today are likely to have the same question for Armstrong and Jones.

Essential Tracks: N/A


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