Jamie Cullum - The Pursuit
Hugh Worskett 06/11/2009
It's been a time for resolve and determination in the GIITTV office these past few weeks. Staff have been on tenterhooks trying to gauge the public mood ahead of a potentially scurrilous review. A protest nearly scuppered everything when a rabble of indie kids with jeans so tight they'd lost circulation to their legs, dragged themselves by their arms through the security cordon coming within metres of GIITTV's headquarters where the editorial team was deadlocked in talks negotiating the terms of the review's release. The Royal Mail initiated a series of postal strikes in a bid to stop the CD subject for review from reaching the office. Ironically in the end, it was the only CD that managed to make it through the picket lines. Having listened to said CD and had our worst fears confirmed, it all boiled down to one simple question: could we do it? Could we actually give Jamie Cullum a good review?
Jamie Cullum releases his first solo album in four years having taken time out to write club music (yes, club music), contribute to the soundtrack of Clint Eastwood's film Gran Torino, and generally spend time doing un-Cullumesque things. He's also been blowing up pianos too, some stunning photos of which make up new album The Pursuit's artwork. It makes a change from the artwork for breakthrough album Twentysomething that endeared Cullum to a whole load of people, none of whom anyone has ever actually met. The self-consciously worn, brand shiny new converse that featured on the cover of that record seemed like a grotesque marketing gesture, in turn making Cullum seem like a puppet to his label and little else, if not a gifted pianist.
Luckily, two albums later there are precious few signs of The Pursuit being anything other than Cullum's, own project. We do, I'm afraid, have the one obligatory butchered pop song that has become synonymous with Cullum in the past. In this instance the dead horse flogged is Rhianna's 'Please Don't Stop The Music'. And whilst it is a low, to Cullum's credit he does manage to eek out a whiny from the carcass although it's not too clear whether that is in fact a genuine (and brief) resurrection of the dead beast or just a bit of trapped gas escaping from the rotting lungs. However, the sad, pleading quality he imbues the music with, is evidence of his inherent musicianship and talent at interpreting and communicating songs.
Having got the one misfire out of the way means I can concentrate on all the other more startling moments that populate The Pursuit. The first real surprise is Cullum's singing. His voice has matured greatly to the extent that he often sounds like Paul McCartney Mk.2 (i.e. the old-man version, not the saccharine Beatles version). It's a little bit husky with a vibrato that kicks in at the tail end of phrases adding a palpable sincerity to the songs. Greg Wells' production is excellent and shows particular imagination on the vocals by doing, well, pretty much nothing: the vocals are (for the most part) untreated and dry. It's as if Cullum was recorded through a stethoscope strapped to his throat thus highlighting all the details in his voice.
The jazz harmonic language of the music is kept to a minimum with a preference instead for pop stylings and structures that are occasionally exploded to allow Cullum brief walk-around history tours of the keyboard. 'Wheels' owes much to Kings of Leon without being overly derivative. 'We Run Things' is a thrillingly paranoid song about seizing control that, surprisingly, features looped electronic noise interspersed amongst the menacing verses. It could easily soundtrack '28 Days Later' and shows real bravery on Cullum's part. I suspect he had a blast recording it and it demonstrates his ability to manipulate and bend alien influences to his will. It is perhaps the musical highlight of the album and I suspect is the kind of music Cullum has been building up to writing for some time. Final track 'Music Is Through' continues in a similar vein sleazing its way along with the aid of a programmed synth bass line.
Cullum sounds so completely comfortable with and in control of his music that The Pursuit demands to be taken seriously, even though it doesn't fit into a genre, style or scene that I, or I suspect you as a GIITTV reader, would usually give time to. The standard of song writing is very high. Even the slightly bland and Busted-lite (if anything could be more watered down than Busted) 'Mixtape' ends up triumphant thanks to a striding piano solo that crashes about the place eventually charging into an instrumental reprieve of the chorus sounding more like Arcade Fire than anything else. Cullum's personality dominates the record exuding class and likeability and the plethora of styles and influences that he is able to wrap round his fingertips makes for rewarding repeated listening.
So the answer is, yes, we can give Jamie Cullum a good review. I've just done it. You just read it. Whilst I've been typing Royal Mail have announced further strikes in the run-up to Christmas amidst rumours that GIITTV is looking to review the X Factor single of John and Edward singing Total Eclipse of the Heart as a weird twin love duet (probably). I can't confirm or deny that, but what I can confirm is that The Pursuit is worth its weight in record contract and is worthy of your attentions. And, come on, if you're not convinced, surely anyone who blows up a grand piano deserves at least a modicum of respect?
Jamie Cullum's The Pursuit is release 9th November 2009 on Decca.