Katie Melua | Album No. 8 | (BMG)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars
It may come to a surprise to many Americans, but English singer/songwriter Katie Melua is a major star in her adopted country (she was originally born in the Soviet Republic of Georgia). Seven previous albums have been certified platinum…56 times. All have charted Top 10 in Great Britain, making her and Kate Bush (another mostly British phenomenon) the only two women in UK chart history to reach the Top 10 with seven consecutive releases. Bush has a large cult US audience, yet Melua remains virtually unknown in the States.
It’s against this backdrop that her unimaginatively titled eighth project arrives.
Whether this one gets Melua some much deserved and surely overdue American attention remains to be seen. But her combination of sweet Laurel Canyon-inflected 70s folk-pop with tinges of jazz and even classical, infused with a beautiful voice parts Peggy Lee, Adele and Eva Cassidy is engaging. (She duetted with the late Cassidy electronically on a cover of “What a Wonderful World”). On the male side, there are hints of early Tim Buckley albeit with less intensity and greater romance.
While covers played a part in Melua’s catalog, she wrote all these lyrics. Additionally, English composer/producer Leo Abrahams (Brian Eno) was a key contributor to the recording. He and Melua brought in the Georgian Philharmonic Orchestra to add generally subtle, sometimes sumptuous, and essential backing to these introspective tunes.
Those ingredients combine to make this a rich, beautifully recorded set that manages to be both cinematic and introspective. The tracks were written during a difficult time as Melua was separating from her husband after a seven year marriage. They later divorced. But that is oddly (and thankfully) not the driving aspect of the subject matter. Rather it’s a sense of searching for something new, or different. In “Maybe I Dreamt It,” Melua expresses her love of music with “Music/You showed me freedom courage for all,” atop luxurious strings that inject swirling, dreamy qualities into the ballad.
Nothing approaches rock, or even rock oriented. Rather Melua keeps her expressive, mellifluous voice focused on mood and atmosphere, letting the songs and orchestrations do the heavy lifting. When the pieces connect as in “Your Longing Is Gone,” the effect is slightly retro, never cliché. This might be pop found on the radio in the 60s, yet it doesn’t feel old-fashioned even when strings raise the tunes to the next level. There are baroque qualities adding to the overall effect that make this perfect listening for reflective Sunday afternoons after a third cup of coffee.
Sit back, relax and float along.