While it's all too easy to dismiss 19-year-old Katie Melua as merely riding the coat-tails of the Norah Jones phenomenon, such a comparison unfairly ignores the fact that her debut album, "Call Off The Search," is not only a fine collection of the same sort of jazzy pop songs that made the young Miss Jones famous, but also a veritable showcase for the young Miss Melua's amazingly smooth and expressive voice.
She fares best with more upbeat numbers, including the peppy "Crawling Up A Hill," the high point of the album with its punchy lyrics and working-class lament. Likewise, "Mockingbird Song" takes the conventional nursery rhyme and turns it into a swinging near-show-stopper.
The slower songs, including the title track, are less successful. Any one of them would fit effortlessly into a movie soundtrack or a DJ's wedding playlist and, indeed, seem tailor-made for just such mundane cross-marketing purposes.
Though the album is unfortunately uneven, Melua at least makes an effort with each and every track. It's hard to dispute her talent, but her lack of experience, though not always obvious, prevents her from achieving anything truly great with any of the twelve tracks. If nothing else, her tone is nearly too precise, almost entirely devoid of the grit and edge of more seasoned singers. She plays it safe, staying carefully within the bounds of each song, unwilling to chance an experimentation or push the boundaries of even a single track. It feels as if she's found her voice with this album but is not yet comfortable enough to even test the limits of what it can do.
To her credit, the two self-penned tracks are among the strongest on the album. "Belfast (Penguins and Cats)" is evocative in its simple construction and execution as one of the only songs on the album that takes Melua outside the realm of smoky piano bars and cocktail dresses. With "Faraway Voice," she makes a fair go at a more traditional ballad that works well in the album's denouement.
The six tracks by collaborator and pianist Mike Batt are less impressive, less original, and ultimately less successful. Even a decent idea such as the William Blake-inspired "Tiger in the Night" falls flat with Batt's pedantic and conventional lyrics and music.
The promise and potential Katie Melua displays in this debut bodes well for whatever direction she decides to take in future efforts. Though it's difficult to give "Call Off The Search" an unqualified recommendation, Melua is one to watch.