On paper Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones’ new record Foreverly, a re-recording of the Everly Brothers’ record Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, from 1958, doesn’t exactly add up. The punk rock guy and jazz singer dueting on folk/Americana classics just doesn’t scream obvious.
All that said, the resulting album is so much greater than the sum of its parts.
The original Everly Brothers record was just as unexpected. After huge pop success they surprised everyone by delivering a dark sparse record of folk ballads about death and lost love, which is credited with helping to name and define the roots/Americana genre. The collection of classics chosen for Songs Our Daddy Taught Us were literally the songs they grew up singing with their father. The record was about sharing those classics with a new generation of listeners because that was the music that was important to them. As on any Everly Brothers record, the show piece was the incredibly tight vocal harmonies of Don and Phil Everly, honed over a lifetime of singing together.
Billie Joe and Norah have not been singing together their entire lives. They did it just for the 9 days it took to record the album. Their vocals will never blend so perfectly, but perhaps it’s for the better. It’s the lack of perfection that gives the album a sonic weight and darkness to compliment the themes, though punctuated with sweet moments. The instrumentation, though minimal, consisting of of guitar and sparing use of pump organ, banjo, fiddle, harmonica, and mandolin sprinkled through the record creates a sound that is true to the genre, but just modern enough to make it more accessible to modern listeners, particularly the Green Day and Norah Jones fans that may be hearing these songs for the first time.
As if the Everly footsteps aren’t enough to have to follow, all of these songs have been performed by countless others of the decades before and since. Perhaps it’s the legacy or the fact that it’s the first time you hear Billie Joe and Norah’s voices meld, but it gives you chills and is a stand out on the record. With its light twang and harmonica it lightens the theme slightly, making it more accessible. And you might say that it rocks, just a little bit.
Green Day fans will probably favor “Barbara Allen,” despite being a waltz with fiddle accompaniment. Where Jones voice is at the fore for much of the record, this track sees Billie Joe take lead with his unmistakable nasal vocals. Conversely, the most Norah of the songs, and a highlight, is “I’m Just Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail,” which tells the story of an old woman bailing out her outlaw son with her dying breath. Despite only being in her early thirties, her vocals carry age and weight that suit the song.
Possibly my favorite thing about this record is that in recording industry terms it really doesn’t make sense. A cynic would argue that it’s a meticulously planned project Svengali-ed by an industry master mind. Realistically, these two artists wouldn’t be the first paired up. Zooey Deschanel would probably be the chanteuse of choice, purely for marking value. There are also far more popular Everly albums, and likely more lucrative options for a tribute album. A romantic, like me, sees it as a project rooted in the most pure and authentic of motives, not even to make art, but to appreciate it. It’s not a perfect one to one copy. Tracks are resorted and it runs five minutes longer. Instruments are changed and there is the twist of adding a female voice. It’s not just a tribute album, it’s fan art! This record was dreamed up by Billie Joe after he stumbled across the record and promptly fell in love with it. Now he’s shouting about it from the roof tops, because that’s what fans do.