British Boy Wonder of Kinda-Jazz Delivers a deeply ambiguous sophomore set.
What do you want from Jamie Cullum? He's 26, he wears Chuck Taylors (see the CD's back photo, man!), he's a jazz wunderkind and a pop fan, plus he's good looking in an elvish British kind of way. You don't expect him just to be a jazz musician do you?
Catching Tales is Mr. Cullum's second major label release, the second since he got the full-on New Thing in Town, feature story on NPR treatment. Since his first disc, Twentysomething, expectations are now fully cranked up. It was enough at first to be a super-talented, super-cute young guy who could croon a standard and adapt a hip-hop tune. Now? Please cover the following bases, Jamie:
- Qualify as the male Norah Jones, please.
- Cover a standard or two, but cleverly.
- Take a game stab at the piano-playing pop star market -- you know, Billy Joel, Ben Folds. Ooh -- maybe the male Tori Amos. Whaddaya say?
- Think Harry Connick, but less Sinatra and more... Norah. Plus we think we can get you a cameo on Will and Grace.
- Do you juggle?
So, can he -- in fact -- do it all?
Catching Tales is an attempt to satisfy all comers. Perhaps inevitably, then, it is a mixed success. Very mixed. It starts with a funky, horn-driven number produced by hip-hop cat Dan the Automater (Handsome Boy Modeling School). "Get Your Way" uses Cullum's acoustic piano like it was a sample and places his snappy/jazzy show-tunesy voice in a slightly odd (but danceable) setting. On to two pop-tunes ("London Skies" and "Photograph") that could have been sandwiched between "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" and "Piano Man" on '70s FM radio. "I Only Have Eyes for You" is a broodingly reverbed standard set over electric piano washes and guitar pulse. "Nothing I Do" is snappy jazz-pop with Manhattan Transfer vocals that, inexplicably, has a faux-reggae bridge. "Mind Trick" and "21st Century Kid" sprint us back to '70s pop (a dash of Stevie Wonder? a lump of Becker and Fagen?) before Our Kroony Kid appears in earnest for an acoustic trio version -- plus subtle strings -- of "I'm Glad There Is You", the '50s standard. Want me to continue? The mix remains about the same: pop tunes, slightly off-center standards (Ruby and the Romantics 1963 hit "Our Day Will Come"), snappy jazz-informed originals.
What ties it all together is Cullum's considerably charming voice -- a flexible instrument that he uses playfully and in the best pop-blues traditions. It's a light, high voice, so it never achieves the gravitas of his obvious jazz role models (Bennett, Sinatra, Joe Williams), veering instead toward the cheeky fun of John Pizzarelli or the keening zip of Al Jarreau. That is to say, it's a voice bent on exposing Cullum's personality, that of a kinetic kid who knows his record collection inside-out. On the jazz stuff, he sings relatively straight but with a sense of needing to please all those NPR listeners. On the pop stuff, he snarls where that's appropriate and sings blues licks on the R&B passages, getting away with being relatively hip. Never pretending to be other than what he is, Mr. Cullum makes a case for himself as a versatile singer.
Then there is his piano playing. It's pretty terrific when it gets a chance to be heard. Live, Mr. Cullum brings just his trio, and he's able to cut loose with some solos that would make Diana Krall's hair curl as tight as Herbie Hancock's. The kid is certainly a jazz player, and one as contemporary and capable as you could hope. On Catching Tales, we hear licks, Rhodes grooves, and funky stabs more than we hear complex reharmonizations or gorgeously constructed runs of lyricism. Still, the kid can play, even if he is pedaling with a dozen Verve executives hanging on his every non-pop move.
The overall package, on the other hand, is just plain strange. No matter how strong a case Cullum makes for this mixture as being the full portrait of his varied musical personality, you yearn for a clearer vision. Far be it from me to heap praise on Harry Connick, but he's made his piano trio album, his strings album, his big band album and his N'awlins funk album -- with each package knowing clearly what it was about. Catching Tales is a pu-pu platter of genres and even production styles. I suspect you'll really like some of it. I suspect you'll be kind of annoyed by some of it.
I really like the piano-driven pop songs like "Oh, God" and "Catch the Sun". More melodic than typical indie-pop but fresher than all the Billie Joel songs you're hearing on "classic rock" radio, these tunes will make the car drive to Jersey this Thanksgiving shorter, I promise. Even "Seven Days to Change Your Life", which is written more in the Tin Pan Alley style, passes pop tune muster, with its clever lyrics parodying contemporary self-help books. On these tunes, I feel that Mr. Cullum is at his most relaxed and engaging. Plainly, the cat can write these tunes with one hand tied behind his back. Forget Starbucks -- can't we just get this stuff on the radio and usher in a new era of harmonically sophisticated pop?
I'm annoyed by Mr. Cullum's attempts to update older tunes by hipping them up, giving them his boyish charm, or arranging them with half-felt hip-hop. "I Only Have Eyes for You" is a dirge that just won't end. "Our Day Will Come" has the tinge of disco, like that pop version of "Thus Spake Zarathustra" from when I was in Junior High. Ack. When the tune opens up and swings under Mr. Cullum's tasty piano solo, it simply underlines the mechanical sound of the rest of the track. For me, Jamie Cullum is a clumsy Cassandra Wilson but a pretty fine Ben Folds. But who wants anyone be both? (If, through some gruesome quirk of social interaction, Cassandra Wilson is currently dating Ben Folds, then I would like to formally apologize to both and wish their children as bright as Jamie Cullum's.)
If this disc sells, perhaps we'll be hearing more polyglot productions like this one. The next Norah Jones record could be split between bossa novas and post-punk Bacharach covers -- who knows? But I'll be rooting for a more focused effort from our sneaker-clad British friend. After all, the kid can play anything.