For some time, vocal jazz has been dominated by the ladies. Norah Jones, Diana Krall, and Madeleine Peyroux have all made significant in roads to shatter the jazz mold, venturing into uncharted genres like pop, country, and rock. Beyond seminal crooner Connick Jr., the men’s invite to the party got lost in the mail. Last year, youngster Jamie Cullum burst onto the jazz scene carrying with him a hip catalog of tunes and a voice that betrayed his years. He was a fresh face that had the passion of youth, looking to breathe life and vitality into an art that usually finds appreciation among the older set. Cullum covered modern artists like Jimi Hendrix, Radiohead, and even Pharrell Williams with impeccable grace, always adding a tasty spin on modern classics. His second album Twentysomething put him on the map, making the music world perk up and take notice. Can he match that brilliance with his latest release Catching Tales?
Cullum was 24 when he released Twentysomething. Similar to other contemporaries like Joss Stone, Cullum was lauded for his musical prowess and astute eye for seeing what a song could be. By the time that follow-up album hits the shelves, though he’s still a kid at heart, he’s been cycled through the gears of the industry for a year plus so that astonishment with his youth is yesterday’s news. Now it’s a question of whether the whirlwind of fame and exposure has chewed up his musical drive, and how has working with idols like Pharrell affected his swing?
Again Cullum picks an array of modern favorites and established classics to cover. Doves “Catch the Sun” definitely takes you aback the first time you hear it much like “High & Dry” did. In the Doves version, Jimi Goodwin’s strong vocal presence fought through the distortion and stood out for its contrast and unconventionality. When Cullum tries to play the song straight, it falls flat. It divorces the character and the essence of what made this song, and the band as a whole, great. He does an amazing job with the classic “I Only Have Eyes for You.” It almost seems to roll off a piano bar that sits poolside, the rippling blue reflecting into the night. It’s a very slow methodic seduction that devours your imagination.
There are some genuinely great tracks here. “Mind Trick” is a nice piece fueled by a carefree 70’s soul that Marvin Gaye would have appreciated. It has an entrancing rhythm and the streets seem alive with energy and excitement. “Photograph” stands out as another gem with full pianos that launch his voice into the chorus. Unfortunately, the sub par tracks get more playtime than the extraordinary. Its not even that they are bad exactly, it’s just they don’t have that passion and intense flavor that Cullum infused Twentysomething with, making it such a magical odyssey. “21st Century Kid” has generic Billy Joel elements that betray Cullum as an innovator. “Our Day Will Come” has a twist of quirky cool to it, but it’s not enough to make it a worthy cover like his balls to the wall approach to Buckley’s “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over.”
So to revisit my initial question of whether Catching Tales has the vibrance and consistent edge of Twentysomething, the answer is sadly no. While all the songs have the sumptuous quality of Jamie’s vocal depth and quality piano work, the material just doesn’t have that cover-to-cover goodness, making it impossible to narrow down your favorite tracks. Some selections certainly stand out, as stated, but a lot of them don’t make that extra effort to differentiate themselves. It is a good collection of songs that would treat your hip, twenty something dinner party, but you’re more likely to hear “Did you see that new Impressionist exhibit at the High?” instead of “Claire put your shirt back on. This is a classy dinner party, not Girls Gone Wild.” Twentysomething had the potential for sparking random craziness in its youthful exuberance. Cullum needs to get back to taking more chances with his material and really pushing out those stuffy boundaries of jazz. Chalk this album up to growing pains, even if those aches still sound better than 90% of the artists plying their craft in this space.
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