The biography that accompanied my review copy of Katie Melua’s debut album Call Off The Search began by describing her tremendous popularity in the UK: over one million albums sold, six weeks at number one. There happens to be an intern from the UK working in my office this summer, and she confirmed that Miss Melua has indeed risen rapidly to stardom across the pond. Popularity, however, doesn’t necessarily mean good music (see: Britney), and I was a bit wary of the frequent comparisons of Miss Melua with Norah Jones, so I was anxious to hear the album for myself.
Call Off The Search is an album on which a strong voice makes the most of weak material. Miss Melua’s voice at times reminded me of, yes, Norah Jones, but also of Harry Connick, Jr., while at other times her diction, vibrato, and “growl” made her sound like a Broadway lead. Norah Jones’ voice has been called “weary” by some, and the same really can’t be said of Miss Melua’s.
It’s not just her voice that distinguishes Miss Melua from Miss Jones. Most of the songs feature broader and deeper instrumentals (thanks to the orchestra) than anything you hear from Norah, which sometimes helps to reinforce the musical theatre feel mentioned above. The songs on this CD seem to draw from a wider (and sometimes different) variety of influences than does Jones’ work. Although many of the same influences are there (jazz, pop, country, etc.), you can tell at times that there are different influences at work, such as when a melody line or the resolution of a musical phrase takes a turn that would sound out of place if it were on one of Miss Jones’ records. For instance, you may hear a Celtic/Irish-influenced phrase here where you’d hear a country-influenced line from Norah.
With this variety of influences and strong performances from Miss Melua and the instrumentalists, why did I call the material “weak?” For a couple of reasons. First off, most of the last half of the album will put you to sleep. With a few of the songs this is soothing and good, but the rest are just boring and bad. Some of the songs in the second half (most notably “Tiger In The Night”) sound as if they were created specifically to be played in elevators.
Although the musical problems are mostly confined to the second half of the album, lyrical problems exist throughout. One of the most noticable differences between Miss Jones and Miss Melua is that Miss Jones has better lyricists writing material for her. Most of the songs here have lyrics that are trite, overly-cliched, or awkward. Take, for instance, a couple of lines from “Crawling Up A Hill”:
So I stop one day to figure it out/I’ll quit my job without a shadow of a doubt/To sing the blues that I know about
So here I am in London town/A better scene I’m gonna be around/The kind of music that won’t bring me down
A better scene I’m gonna be around? To quote my roommate, “Well, this is awkward.” It’s a credit to Miss Melua that she can smooth over these gangly lyrics and almost make them work in the song.
So, with the understanding that there are no eternal truths to be gleaned from listening to the lyrics on this album, I’d still recommend it. As some of the other Blogcritics have noted, it’s a very produced, very safe album, and these factors no doubt explain its enormous popularity in Britain. Buying and listening to this album isn’t so much finding a diamond in the rough as it is finding a diamond that’s been placed into an ill-conceived setting. Should a better setting be found for Miss Melua’s second effort, then we should anticipate experiencing this diamond in all her brilliance.
Bobby Allison-Gallimore writes on culture and politics at The Rattler.