Katie Melua‘s rise to success took many people aback. The 19 year old rose without trace to become the biggest selling album artist of 2004, seemed to be a permanent fixture on daytime Radio 2 and revitalised the career of one Mike Batt, a man previously famous primarily for the song Remember You’re A Womble.
While a proportion of Melua’s success could perhaps be put down to timing – she followed the path laid down by Norah Jones the previous year and also became well known at the same time as Jamie Cullum – it’s impossible to deny that Call Off The Search was a polished collection which certainly knew how to press the collective button of its target audience.
What’s more difficult to explain is how Call Off The Search became such a phenomenon. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Melua but it did rather seem like a triumph of the mediocre. While Melua has a nice, pleasant voice, it does rather pale in comparison to, say, Joss Stone, while she’s lacking the showmanship that somebody like Cullum possesses in spades.
So, two years after that debut album, Melua and Batt have produced the follow up and they obviously subscribe to the ‘if it ain’t broke, why fix it’ theory. Piece By Piece is another professional production that’s bound to sell just as many copies as its predecessor.
The format remains the same – a handful of covers, mixed in with some of Batt’s material, but this time Melua herself has contributed some songs of her own. This is encouraging, as one of her own compositions, Belfast, was the undoubted highlight of the first record, but the results are a bit more mixed here.
Spiders Web has a nicely dramatic air to it, but is let down badly by some woeful lyrics about racism (“if a black man is racist, is it okay if it’s a white man’s racism that made him his way” runs the opening lines), even comparing the black and white keys of a piano to the way a multi-cultural society should be run. It makes Ebony & Ivory sound like a deep philosophical statement.
Melua’s other compositions fare better, such as the two melancholic closing songs, I Cried For You and I Do Believe In Love, but the best songs on Piece By Piece belong to Mike Batt. Blue Shoes, a piano led jazzy ballad, shows off Melua’s voice to its best advantage, and Nine Million Bicycles, despite possessing a rather baffling lyric about the amount of bikes in China, produces a lovely, warm, fuzzy feeling which makes it perfect listening as the winter nights draw in.
The covers are of a similar varying quality – Blues In The Night is a faithful rendition of the old standard which works very well (with a particular effective harmonica break), while her version of Canned Heat‘s On The Road Again has been a staple of her live set for some time. The latter is one of the best tracks here – while Melua may not possess Al Wilson’s idiosyncratic falsetto vocals, it’s one of the few occasions here that it sounds like she’s having fun.
The cover that will draw most attention though is her version of The Cure‘s Just Like Heaven. It’s been endorsed by Robert Smith apparently, and it’s suitably wistful and melancholy. However, Melua doesn’t imbue the song with enough of her own personality and the result leaves you just wanting to hear the original instead – which surely shouldn’t be the point of a cover version.
Piece By Piece is guaranteed to continue the Katie Melua phenomenon, and the millions of people who bought Call Off The Search will no doubt rush out to buy this. It would be nice to hear her take some more risks in the future, but for now this isn’t going to dislodge her from the post of Queen Of Easy Listening.