If it hasn't quite begun, rest assured that a Norah Jonesification of pop music is in the offing. Record companies just don't ignore the sort of out-of-the-blue mega-platinum sales that Jones's first two albums engendered. They are keen to produce and promote other young, attractive, moody, jazz-tinged singer-songwriter types who are as appealing to baby boomers as they are to generations X, Y and Z.
Never mind that Jones's success was due in part to being a unique, refreshingly quiet voice amid a cacophony of bubble-gum pop and rap metal. With what seems a proven lucrative formula in hand, record companies aren't deterred by such minor details. Like the coming swarm of cicadas, the Norah Jones wannabes, male and female, will soon be aflutter everywhere.
Enter, then, Jamie Cullum, a 24-year-old British singer and pianist whose debut album, "Twentysomething," has just been released in the States after selling more than 800,000 copies in the United Kingdom and Ireland. A blend of lite jazz and please-take-me-seriously pop, the album meets all of the Jonesian criteria: a mellow tone, not unpretty vocals, a double dose of melancholy and several retooled standards of the American songbook. And just as Jones released her albums on an established jazz label, Blue Note, Cullum shows up on Verve, onetime home to the likes of Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Count Basie. This is a formula being followed to a T.
But Cullum is nowhere near Jones's equal, particularly as an interpreter. His overwrought style is closer in spirit to Harry Connick Jr.'s slick, sultry delivery or David Grey's mopey pop than to Jones's earthier and more interesting technique. And it doesn't help that he has chosen to cover songs so well known that any further interpretation of them seems unnecessary. In addition to rather feeble remakes of classics like "Singin' in the Rain," "I Get a Kick Out of You" and "What a Difference a Day Makes," there's a particularly ill-advised updating of "I Could Have Danced All Night" that's besmirched by a cheesy drumbeat and beset by awkward phrasing.
Even when he tries to interpret more modern material, Cullum falls short. He breaks out his best Van Morrison imitation for a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary" that makes a bright flowery assortment out of Hendrix's much heavier original. And his Coldplay-like rendition of Radiohead's "High and Dry" is more easy-listening lullaby than brainy, post-rock declaration.
Unfortunately, Cullum doesn't fare much better on his original tracks. "I'm still having fun and I guess that's the key, I'm a twentysomething and I'll keep being me," he sings on the title track, a less-than-convincing cataloguing of a purportedly angst-ridden soul. Much worse is the insipid "Next Year, Baby": "Resolutions, baby, they come and go. Will I do any of these things? The answer's probably no."
As background music, "Twentysomething" is mostly inoffensive pop. But make the mistake of paying attention, and all of its shortcomings become readily apparent and increasingly grating. Norah Jones needn't look over her shoulder.