Saturday, June 26, 2004

Music Reviews: (Not quite) totally unknown U.K. pop singer Katie Melua debuts in U.S.

It's time once again to take a break from this week's dreary world events with something different. This week it is a review of Katie Melua's new Album, Call Off the Search.

We’ve occasionally written about the intersection of pop culture and politics in these pages. We had a hit spoof of Madonna’s recent religious conversion (to Taliban Islam in our spoof). We recently compared the choices facing U.S. anti-terrorism policy as the choice between a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid approach or a Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb approach. We covered the friction between the conservative U.S. military and Arab views and the often more liberal view of Middle East policy in the pop culture world, as personified by Sheryl Crow. We talked about how the work of an obscure, deceased NYC artist relates to Michael Moore’s sell-out new anti-Bush film.

Elsewhere, we’ve discussed the Stepford Wives in the context of the rich cinematic history of using robots in film as a metaphor for authoritarian government. And we’ve written about the impact of technology on the musical world.

Today we start a new feature in DFW where we write reviews of artists hardly anyone in the United States has ever heard of before, but who are on the brink of breaking through in the United States with a smash hit.

Katie Melua’s story might be much like that of this blog. One week ago, hardly anyone had ever heard of DFW. People whom we covered critically no doubt said to themselves (if they even heard about our stories), "Who are these guys and why should we care about anything they have to say?" Then late last week the world learned about DFW and the site finally caught on fire. Ever since then, we’ve had a flood of visitors that would have to be respected by many a blog and even some print magazines.

In other words, this week DFW had a hit story, with a unique and exclusive perspective a tragic story impacted America and its coverage throughout the blogosphere. There will be more great hit stories on DFW

Katie Melua is a very good, young bluesy pop singer (age 19), said to be in the style of Norah Jones. She’s almost completely unknown in the United States, but she’s already sold 1.2 million CDs of her debut album Call Off The Search in the UK. Like DFW she has a bit of an international flavor. Born in Soviet Georgia ("Georgia is succeedin’ from the Union" is where the similarity ends) she grew up in Northern Ireland before her father (a heart surgeon) took a position in England. She ultimately would attend a prestigious British performing arts school. And she's about to debut in the United States. All of which makes her a good choice for this column.

First a confession. I don’t much like blues or bluesy music. Nevertheless, I can easily imagine second song, "Crawling Up a Hill," in Katie Melua’s album Call Off The Search as a future radio hit in the United States. She and the orchestra do almost everything correctly. There are places where (in a real radio hit) I would expect the sound engineer to manipulate the relative levels of the volume of the singer’s voice with respect to that of the other instruments to help emphasize (and de-emphasize) different parts of the song. But that’s just sound engineering. There’s nothing wrong with her singing here, and no reason why this (or a subtle re-release) might not fill this genre’s radio bandwidth someday soon.

I was disappointed with the title track, "Call Off The Search." My initial impression was, "terrible." It was the first track I heard, and it is the title track. That didn’t bode well for the rest of the album. But then I listened to the rest of the album, and was relieved that it was everything I had been told it was. I listened to the title track several times, and didn’t change my opinion much. There are some things wrong with. I think Katie Melua's voice is frequently flat (a half step too low) in this piece, and while this may be deliberate artistry in other parts of the album, I don’t think it sounds right in this one. I also don’t like her interpretation of the rhythm of the first piece. Katie Melua plays with very little accompaniment to guide her, but I’m certain a more "normal" pop interpretation of the tricky rhythm would re-interpret some of the fast notes as grace notes (a very rapid transition to the next note, played with considerable interpretation) rather than straight as she does.

The combination of frequent flat tones and an uninspired interpretation make the title track my least favorite piece in the entire collection. The first track is completely eclipsed by the second track, "Crawling Up a Hill," and compares unfavorable with the rest of the album, including "Closest Thing to Crazy," "My Aphrodisiac is You," "Blame It On the Moon/Rain," "I Think It’s Going to Rain Today," "Mockingbird Song," and "Tiger in the Night" (most of these are covers of songs by other artists). Since, for marketing purposes, the strongest song is normally chosen as the title song in an album, this might indicate that I have unusual tastes. In reality, however, it shows that the UK success of Call off the Search came as a total surprise to the music studios, or they would have done better market research before selecting a title track.

I can easily imagine the third track in the album, "The Closest Thing to Crazy" as part of a movie soundtrack, perhaps to accompany otherwise slow-moving opening or closing credits or some dialogue-free montage in need of greater excitement. (In fact, after writing these words, I’m informed Terry Wogan of BBC Radio Two, who apparently has a track record for picking winners, picked up "Closest Thing To Crazy," which did indeed become a number one radio hit in the UK. Were they to release the album over again, "Closest Thing To Crazy" would likely be the title song. "Closest Thing to Crazy" went on to becoming a best selling single in the UK as well.)

But then I listened closer to "The Closest Thing to Crazy." Something was wrong with the musical accompaniment. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first. Then it was obvious -- a Hollywood film would use a much larger orchestra (real or synthesized) to contrast her voice. The sound engineer would also probably manipulate the volume of her voice (as compared with that of the accompaniment) to help further add that emotion punch. But her voice has the palette of textures that eventually will make everything else possible.

Nevertheless, "The Closest Thing to Crazy" proves Katie Melua’s voice can best any current movie or TV soundtrack blues singer that I’ve heard. Hollywood only uses the best talent in its feature film soundtrack. So you know she’s good. It’s that variety of vocal textures that immediately grabs listeners attention and focuses it on her lyrics rather than whatever else is happening around them.

I think in some of the other pieces Katie Melua occasionally hits flat notes (i.e., a half-step or so too low) as well, but not as often. Blues is filled with diminished chords, so what I regard as slightly flat (being used to less bluesy pop and classical music) might be deliberate artistry. In some places it is artistry, but in other places the more Saccharine ears of this Yank are convinced it’s probably not. No, matter -- these days they got dem singing rodents (link). (Or re-record.)

Her album, Call Off The Search, was released June 8, 2004, in the United States by Dramatico/Universal and is available from Amazon.com. You can also sample music and video off Universal’s site, Katie Melua’s own website, and off the Amazon.com site.

It’s safe to say we can expect more hits from Katie Melua in the future. And from Dear Free World (DFW) as well.