Jamie Cullum: Twentysomething

Jamie Cullum

Maybe I should pay more attention. I initially thought that this Jamie Cullum fellow was a decent enough musician, if a rather blatant attempt to horn in on the unbelievable market success of various neo-classical jazz successes as Norah Jones, Diana Krall and Josh Groban. The cover alone is pretty silly: Cullum is leaping into the air like a Warped tour refugee (sans skateboard, of course), with an imposing grand piano in the foreground. In the annals of marketing, it’s a classic image meant to communicate a classic sentiment: a young punk singing old standards in a hip, edgy fashion. Ka-ching.

But, as I said before, perhaps I need to pay more attention. Fact is, Cullum isn’t a homegrown attempt to horn in on the previously mentioned domestic success of pop-crossover artists like Jones, Krall and Groban. Cullum is actually an authentic British phenomenon whose debut album, 2002’s Pointless Nostalgic (released stateside in 2003) was enough of a breakthrough to inspire a million-pound bidding war. In the UK, Twentysomething has already gone double-platinum. So, if we’ve learned anything, it’s that all of my cynical assumptions about Cullum’s career are going to rebound on me in a heap of bad karma. I realize this.

If Cullum isn’t quite the “Sinatra in Sneakers” heralded by the British music press, that’s hardly worth worrying about. That’s a heady tag to lay on anyone, let alone a kid who, by his own admission, is barely two-and-a-half decades on this planet. Cullum’s voice isn’t as good as he probably thinks it to be, but he’s got time. A good jazz voice, just like a fine wine or a dope MC, only improves with age.

More important than his voice, however, are his undeniable strengths as a songwriter. We seem to be in the midst of a bumper crop of impossibly precocious young songwriters at the present moment, from The Streets’ Mike Skinner to Cullum’s own evil twin, Nellie McKay. Amazingly, Cullum’s original material manages to hold its own next to well-worn standards by composers as wide and varied as Lerner & Loewe (“I Could Have Danced All Night”) and Jeff Buckley (“Lover, You Should Have Come Over”). Cullum’s three solo compositions manage to stick in your brain for longer and with more tenacity even than his token Cole Porter cover (“I Get A Kick Out Of You”), and Porter was definitely someone who knew a thing or two about writing catchy melody lines.

Cullum’s piano playing is spry and jaunty, a perfect match for the straightforward and muscular arrangements by Geoff Gascoyne and Cullum himself. If there’s nothing terribly surprising in the arrangements, that’s hardly a cardinal sin considering the sedate nature of most vocal jazz these days.

“Twentysomething” is bop tribute to Porter’s signature wordplay, and a seemingly effortless evocation of mid-’20s ennui. “All at Sea” is the kind of cascading, melancholy pop song that will be itself covered many years from now by succeeding generations of ambitious punks intent on making their bones. “Next Year, Baby” is your typical slow burning ballad, right up until the moment is erupts into an irresistible Latin samba number. It’s one of the musical moments I’ll most remember from this entire year, ballsy and unpredictable and just burning with talent.

I can almost forgive him for covering “Singing in the Rain” on account of his deliciously melodic cover of the Neptunes’ “Frontin'” (added as a bonus track to the American edition). The only real missteps are, surprisingly, his covers of tracks from the Jimi Hendrix and Radiohead songbooks. I say missteps not on account of any failure on Cullum’s part, but merely because “The Wind Cries Mary” and “High and Dry” (respectively) are hardly the best specimens from either artists’ voluminous catalogs. But all things considered, that’s a fairly minor quibble.

If you can get past the heinous cover photo they’ve given the American edition, “Twentysomething” is an absolutely wonderful album from a fast-rising talent who does not seem even to have reached his stride yet. I expect that as he grows away from his laudable influences and into his own songwriting voice, he shall truly become a force with which to be reckoned.

(As a brief note, I should mention that the UK and US editions of this disc are totally different. The British edition has a few tracks which were not included on the American edition and the American edition includes a few tracks from Cullum’s debut, Pointless Nostalgic. I don’t know why they do things this way but it makes life endlessly difficult. Caveat emptor, and all that.)