Nellie McKay, "Get Away From Me" (Columbia)
Katie Melua, "Call Off The Search" (Universal)
I'm a sucker for precocious youngsters. Having passed forever out of precocious youngsterhood a few years ago, I remain deeply impressed by people who can, at an improbably young age, turn out an album of assured, complete, and ambitious songs that deserve a wide audience. However, I'm frequently disappointed with the followup. In 1999, I was very much taken by Ben Kweller's self-released EP, "Freak Out It's Ben Kweller!" His super-ballad "Butterflies" was possibly my favorite song of that year, and his Vanilla Ice redux "BK Baby" was improbably fun. However, his follow-on major label debut, 2002's "Sha Sha" (ATO) lacked the same flair, possibly because recording in an actual studio with Dave Matthews' money made him choke a little when the time came to deliver. Ditto Erin McKeown, a Massachusetts singer whose second album, "Distillation" (Signature Sounds) is still one of my favorites. A pixieish woman who plays hot jazz guitar, McKeown mined Tin Pan Alley and some weird angry side of her subconsious to create a strong and diverse set of songs. "Queen of Quiet," "Blackbirds" and "La Petite Mort" crackled with creativity, brilliance, and masterful performances, and a small bidding war ensued for her among indie labels. Unfortunately her next album, last year's "Grand" (Nettwerk) was notable mainly because McKeown abandoned her strengths to experiment with new genres and forms with the result that for the moment her reach exceeds her grasp.
So now when faced with the prospect of some ambitous new hotness, I tend to hesistate lest I sign on to follow the career of an artist who will within two years disappear into his or her own navel. I am especially hesitant to embrace releases by young female jazz singers these days, since every label in the universe seems determined to build their future on cloning Norah Jones. Nellie McKay and Katie Melua are both nineteen years old, both have preciousness just coming out their ears, both grew up in itinerant circumstances (Melua moving from Moscow to Georgia (the Black Sea Georgia) to Belfast, McKay shuttling between the East and West Coasts in a VW van), and both have chosen to be jazz chanteuses on their debut albums. But for all the similarities, McKay and Melua could hardly have turned out more differently. Where Nellie McKay kicks against the stereotype, dead set on being different from Norah Jones in every way, Katie Melua seems dead set on jumping Jones's claim.