CD Review: Jamie Cullum / The Pursuit
Reviewed by: Sally Feller
Jamie Cullum’s fourth studio album released in the US is a testament to his growth as a musician and from a twenty-something to a thirty-something. If you don’t know Cullum yet, you’d do yourself an enormous favor to buy “Catching Tales,” his 2005 album and discover this amazing British talent with a classic voice amped up by a bit of scratchy soul to it. A piano-jazz musician who fuses the genre with pop, showtunes, Broadway classics, hip hop, R&B, club jams, and even beat-boxing, you have to hear it to believe it. While his previous albums “Twentysomething” and “Pointless Nostalgic” focused on more singular genres, pop-jazz fusion (with a few covers—Radiohead and Hendrix, for example) and classics like Gershwin respectively, “The Pursuit” cooks up a mix of every genre (other than country, I suppose) that tastes like a complex, finely tuned dish, not a chaotic time-trip as you might expect.“The Pursuit” features nine songs written by Cullum himself and five cover songs—from Rihanna to Cole Porter.
Let’s begin with the originals. “I’m All Over It” is a cheery pop song about growing up and falling in and out of love…Piano-heavy and filled with energetic drums, you almost miss that the lyrics are a bit sad. “I’m all over it now/cause I worked and I cursed and I tried/and I said I would change, but I lied/and yet something still moves me inside.” A good start to getting to know the singer.
“Wheels” is a collaboration with his older brother Ben. The song’s about the apocalypse but happy; and somehow hopeful. Think Trent Reznor on Zoloft. Effervescent piano moves the song along at a quick pace that makes you think you really ought to get out there and seize the day…you know, before the apocalypse.
“You and Me Are Gone” pulls in some swinging sounds you might picture in a 40s dance hall that was redone by Tarantino. And all of you zumba groupies, this is worth a purchase for your workout playlist. This is another breakup song, but it’s also a punch in the face to the ex… it’s empowered breakup music. But to liven this up even further, there’s a killer piano solo to split up the swing and the slowed-down bridge in the middle of the song. If this song were out when “Swingers” was made, it would certainly have been a candidate for the club scenes, I’ve no doubt. Nicely ending the song are the sounds of clapping you’d hear in a real blues club, just to pull it all together into the time-warp.
Next up is “Love Ain’t Gonna Let You Down.” This one is a more traditional jazz waltz with chill love song lyrics. As I’m writing this on Valentine’s Day, this is one you’d hear at a lovely restaurant prior to dancing cheek to cheek, if people still do that. If not, maybe this song will kindle some old-school romance. Pulled together with Cullum’s soulful vocals, the song manages to be a modern homage to the classics.
“Mixtape” is a song about making a mixtape for your lover, as one might assume: “Make you a mixtape that’s a blueprint of my soul/Make you a mixtape that’ll charm you into bed, it details everything that’s running round my head.” This song actually summarizes the album nicely; he mentions a mix of songs from Louis Armstrong, Nine Inch Nails, Coltrane, Morrisey, etc. on this hypothetical mixtape…if Cullum were to make you a mixtape (beat) oh wait, he kinda already did…it’s this album. “Mixtape” is another uplifting pop tune that is a collaboration of Jamie and his brother Ben.
“We Run Things” is a fun little track living harmoniously somewhere between jazz, pop, and hip hop. There’s funk beats and “I’m out with my guys/girls and ready to party” lyrics. With a style reminiscient of Cullum’s earlier song “Frontin’,” a cover of a Pharrell song, “We Run Things” is a pumped up jazz-pop song that’ll get your feet moving.
“I Think I Love” utilizes traditional jazz sounds, but the lyrics are pretty hilarious. It’s very melodic and lyrical, but it’s about the flaws of this girl and how he still loves her despite them, perhaps even because of them. She throws a can of beer at him, she throws up in a cab, etc. So, no, it’s not Cole Porter, but it pretty neatly combines both the classics and the more modern somewhat “gritty” love songs. In other words, it’s pretty straight up Jamie Cullum.
Speaking of Cole Porter, let’s get to Cullum’s cover of Porter’s song “Just One of Those Things.” This song opens the album and serves as an anchoring introduction to a genre-mashing album. No one who knows Cullum will be surprised by the cover of this jazz standard. It works, we like it, he likes it…perfect. If you’re just starting to listen to Cullum’s music, perhaps this song is the place to start.
Another killer cover (pun intended) is Stephen Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd. Cullum’s vocals fit perfectly with the song and it’s chilled out with a simple piano melody.
“If I Ruled the World,” one of my favorite songs on “The Pursuit” is a cover of a Leslie Bricusse song, which was originally performed in a musical called “Pickwick” (I assume it had to do with the Pickwick Papers). I hadn’t heard the original before, but this version knocks my socks off. It’s an uncomplicated ballad heavy on the classical piano. The combination of the simple melody and Cullum’s complex voices draws you in like a mug of hot chocolate after a cold snowball fight.
Lastly, what would you expect next on this album? How about Rihanna? No? Picture a jazzified and much improved version of Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music.” It’s here. If you want a taste of this, you need to check out the official video. This was the first song I heard off “The Pursuit” and I played it to some friends and coworkers who didn’t believe that it was actually a cover until they heard the chorus. The usual problem with covers is that the musicians don’t change the style of the original song enough and it just sounds like a lazy copy of someone elses’ work. I can safely say that that’s not the case here! Go check it out. Really. I’ll wait.
“The Pursuit” is all over the place, but in an intriguing way. Instead of a chaotic, disheveled canvas, we get a real sense of the musician behind it. I found myself enthusiastically along for the ride, looking forward to not having any idea of what to expect next. “The Pursuit” is available March 2nd, so get your hands on a copy and have a listen. Let me know what you think in the comments box below after you listen!