Two years on from his breakthrough album Twentysomething and it appears that the jury is still out on Jamie Cullum. Is he the new face of jazz, bringing a old genre up to date for a new generation of fans? Or is he just a karaoke singer who can play the piano a bit?
The release of his fourth album gives us a chance to examine the Cullum phenomenon without being blinded by the hype about million pound record contracts and meaningless soubriquets such as ‘Sinatra In Sneakers’ and ‘the David Beckham of jazz’.
Of course, the backlash against Cullum kicked off pretty soon after Twentysomething’s release so there will be an awful lot of people already gunning for Catching Tales. What’s encouraging about the record though is the fact that this isn’t simply a re-run of that successful last album – there are real signs of musical development here.
Although Wifey, the much heralded collaboration with Pharrell Williams, is missing (pulled at the last minute due to publishing reasons apparently), there’s still a move into hip-hop with opening track Get Your Way. Gorillaz star Dan The Automator lends his magic touch giving the song a fresh, rather funky, flavour to it. There’s an infectious piano loop, some energetic bursts of brass and the chorus is truly addictive.
Another sign of Cullum’s progression as an artist is the fact that there’s only four cover versions here – for a man who’s been more or less defined by his covers so far, that’s a surprisingly little amount. The Gershwin number Fascinating Rhythm is probably the most successful – highlighting Cullum’s superb piano playing and scat singing, it’s probably the most traditional jazz song here.
His version of Doves‘ Catch The Sun also works surprisingly well, being transformed into a light, melancholy mid-paced piano ballad. If it’s missing the brooding intensity of the original, Cullum’s version brings out the pop sensibility that was lurking under the gloomy atmosphere.
Yet, uniquely for a Cullum record, it’s the original compositions that work best on Catching Tales. London Skies is a lovely tribute to the capital city, apparently inspired by Cullum trying to persuade his Brazilian girlfriend to appreciate the beauty in London’s grey, cloudy skies.
7 Days To Change Your Life is also a fine song, featuring more wonderful piano skills from Cullum and an amusing lyric which is seemingly a dig at self-help books. His much derided vocal is also shown at its best here. Nothing I Do, while likely to upset his older audience (the words “stupid twat” and “useless prick” are mentioned in the lyrics), is likely to find plenty of people identifying with it, describing as it does an argument with a partner.
The accusation that often gets thrown at Cullum is blandness, and it’s true that some of the songs here sometimes become a bit too cosy. I’m Glad There Was You and Our Day Will Come both wash over the listener somewhat while Cullum’s version of I Only Have Eyes For You is deeply dull.
They are the exception though, rather than the rule. Oh God, a collaboration with Guy Chambers, is an affecting song about the Asian tsunami which manages to avoid all traces of corniness, while the highlight of the album is Back To The Ground, co-written by the excellent Ed Harcourt. It’s got a lazy, bluesy feel and some touching lyrics about the joy of returning home after touring – a simple song, beautifully done.
So if you’re looking for Jamie Cullum to fall flat on his face, bad luck. Catching Tales is a fine record – his best so far by a long chalk – and should easily replicate the success of Twentysomething. The new face of jazz or a glorified karaoke artist then? The answer is neither, really – Cullum’s just a damn fine performer and Catching Tales is another big step forward for him.