Rarely does a singer’s surname reflect the tone and feeling left with a listener, but Katie Melua (pronounced “Mellow-a”) does just that. The teen, originally from the former Soviet Union, has hit a landmine with this album overseas, moving more than a million albums in four months after its European and British release. Now, she has taken that album and is plying it over here. And it should have pretty much the same effect, although one gets the impression that she isn’t quite sure if she’s a jazz singer in a pop world or a pop singer in a jazz world. It makes for an interesting contrast.
Opening in a vein that Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, or even Connie Francis would approve of on “Call Off the Search”, Melua allows for the strings and lush arrangement to carry this old-school jazz-meets-classic big band ditty. “And I’ve got a feeling / It won’t fade away,” she sings as a quasi-hopeless romantic. With help from Chris Spedding (Roxy Music), Melua takes the song’s classic pop style and brings it back to life again. It’s not exactly Norah Jones, either, as she relies more on the music in tandem with her pipes. The only thing it doesn’t come with is the plumes of cigarette smoke that you might find listening to it live. She mixes things up somewhat on “Crawling Up a Hill” a cover of a John Mayall tune. It’s a tad more upbeat and sultrier, with Melua loosening up slightly. The static of a vinyl album or old radio recording gives it more pizzazz.
What makes this album so successful is how Melua never ever gives a sub-par or usual performance, despite the fact the songs themselves are well versed in the genres they were spawned from. The slower ballad “The Closest Thing to Crazy” is basically Melua and a guitar. For the first time, you see just how her alluring, engaging, and enticing soft-whispered vocals complement her stronger prowess. It’s also a voice that belies her years, especially on the chorus. The barroom blues feeling starting out “My Aphrodisiac is You” is somewhat kitschy, though. Although she has the voice to pull it off, the overall flair of the album makes you think you’re listening to Mae West or Billie Holiday. It’s a sexy number that has Melua forcing the issue musically with the results not quite as satisfying.
She atones for this quickly with a brilliant and yearning “Learnin’ The Blues”. Here Melua is well within her strengths as the drum brushes and bass line pulls you in without any resistance to its sway. This leads nicely into another stellar moment entitled “Blame It on the Moon”, a track which Sting might take on given his current belief that everything the Police ever did can be a jazz track. Melua rides with the song’s light pop touches reminiscent of Ron Sexsmith if backed by a string section. The sleeper pick might be the delicate and lovely “Belfast”, which crawls along in a melancholic manner. “It’s about being able to fly / It’s about dying nine times”, Melua sings with a confidence that is quite audible. Her soundtrack song is definitely the majestic “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” that has a bit of sonic fat in its middle.
Melua is a talent who will hopefully be reckoned with, given the quality of this album. It’s heard nearly throughout, aside from a rather garish offering of “Mockingbird Song”. Redemption, though, comes during the lush “Tiger in the Night” and the softer, pretty “Faraway Voice”. Anyone who can make Diana Krall sound soulless has something special worth bringing to the table. And Katie Melua has that in spades! Now if she could just lose the strings a bit more . . .