There’s surprisingly little difference between Norah Jones’s solo albums and her work with country music side project the Little Willies, whose second covers disc drops today. Jones makes understated jazz albums with blues and country undertones; the Little Willies, whose members include her longtime collaborator Lee Alexander and singer Richard Julian, make understated country albums with blues and jazz undertones.
“Good Times,” which contains well-tended covers of songs popularized by Kris Kristofferson, Patsy Cline and band namesake Willie Nelson, charms throughout. It’s expertly played, flawlessly sung, nimbly curated and affectionately done. And yet, it has inherited the same sense of unearthly calm that anchors all of Jones’s work, and while jazz albums thrive on that sort of brunch-tastic gentility, it snuffs out almost any spark of life in these would-be rave-ups.
There are some standout tracks — a version of Nelson’s transcendent “Permanently Lonely” sung by Julian, who sounds more like Lyle Lovett than anyone who isn’t actually Lyle Lovett, and Jones’s smoke-filled barroom cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” a song so fundamentally great that probably no one has ever messed it up.
But some of the weaker originals get lost in translation: Loretta Lynn didn’t sing the lay-offa-my-man anthem “Fist City” so much as she detonated it like a nuclear warhead. Jones can do almost anything, but she can’t make lines like “If you don’t wanna go to fist city you’d better detour ’round my town / ’Cause I’ll grab you by the hair of the head and I’ll lift you off of the ground” sound convincing.
“Permanently Lonely,” “Jolene”