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A touch of the sophomore jinx

October 16, 2005|Robert Hilburn

Jamie Cullum

"Catching Tales" (Verve Forecast)

* 1/2 .

ALT-ROCK isn't the only musical genre where artists are having trouble living up to promising debuts. The first time around, this British singer-songwriter showed traces of the cockiness and range of a young Bobby Darin as he mixed aggressive jazz roots and pop instincts on tunes from artists as varied as Radiohead and Cole Porter. None of it was essential, but the audacity was impressive.

In this follow-up, Cullum starts out with "Get Your Way," and it's probably his most striking piece of music. Sharing songwriting credit with New Orleans R&B marvel Allen Toussaint and contemporary dance-world whiz Dan Nakamura, Cullum displays so much self-assurance in his singing that you can almost see him strutting in the studio.

It's a song about being in love with an independent woman: "What game shall we play today / How about the one that you don't get your way / Even if you do, that's OK."

Little in the rest of the album comes close to that sass. Instead of reaching far afield for outside material, he focuses on pop standards, such as "I Only Have Eyes for You," and his versions lack irony or wit. His own tunes, while stylish, tend to be a bit hollow. Instead of Bobby Darin, it turns out he's somewhere between the obviousness of Harry Connick Jr. and the bombast of Billy Joel.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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