Vocal and instrumental abilities carry through a wide variety of styles
By Chris Cooper
If you didn’t know already, Jamie Cullum is that kid who was on Pay-Per-View last summer. It was a “freeview” concert, I think, during which he ran around like a complete nut on a huge stage, before an equally large crowd, in front of a gigantic English castle somewhere.
Think of really early Billy Joel (young man, not necessarily angry) for all the piano stomping and calisthenics, then mix in some Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Cole Porter, then add all the things a real 20-something gets into, and you’ll have a starting point. The guy seems able to do it all: cover Radiohead and not ruin it, display legit jazz chops and an ability to swing, croon Connick style but without the hair gel and suit...
Catching Tales is Cullum’s second major release in the states, following the considerable success of twentysomething. His previous effort was a surprising depiction of a musician who, while quite aware of his youth, easily played and wrote beyond it when not poking fun at it. Catching Tales manages to be a continuation, an experiment, and a step back, simultaneously. Some of the more “electronic” efforts work, others don’t. The ballads are pretty, the chords are smart, and he sings wonderfully. Sometimes, though, he comes across as younger this time out.
In no way does this mean the album isn’t good — it really, really is. And there’s very little out there that sounds anything like this, at least that’s making enough major-label noise to warrant the attention of “People” magazine. “Photograph” is a lovely tune that spins off into inspired soloing over a Latin groove. “Nothing I Do” swings with authority and attitude, with a brilliant vocal arrangement in the chorus. And he uses two words, which I cannot repeat here, that have likely never appeared in a song like this.
It’s the re-working of “I Only Have Eyes For You” with its digital clicks and whirrs that feels a little weird. On one hand, it makes sense that if you’re going to record a standard you should twist it into whatever you want, with so many straight readings of the tune out there. But when Cullum delivers a more traditional version of the classic “I’m Glad There Is You” a few tracks later, it feels much more real, and frankly more like him.
The best summation is that the album drifts freely through feels and styles, always led confidently by Cullum’s vocals and instrumental abilities. Even if there are a few stumbles, it’s expected when an artist takes chances. The ‘70s funk of “Mindtrick” works the party vibe, the sarcastic “7 Days To Change Your Life” maintains Cullum’s sense of humor and, of course, swings. Even the tracks that don’t immediately stand out seem to grow on you after a while. With 14 songs on the CD, this is a good thing. While this may not be the defining album from Cullum, it’s steadily satisfying and fun to listen to.