Singer Katie Melua comes to the United States with helpful precedents in Norah Jones and Eva Cassidy, though she doesn't bear a particularly close resemblance to either beyond sweet, plaintive vocals and an eclectic repertoire.
In England, the 19-year-old Melua and her mentor, veteran songwriter-arranger-producer Mike Batt, were turned down by labels large and small until Batt's own boutique label released "Call Off the Search." With no publicity campaign, but strong word of mouth and enthusiastic support from BBC DJ Terry Wogan (who brought the unknown Cassidy to posthumous international acclaim), the CD rose to No. 1 on the British charts. Released in March, it held the top spot for six weeks and sold a remarkable 1.2 million copies. "Call Off the Search" has recently been released in the States, and Melua will make her Washington debut Tuesday at the Birchmere.
Like Jones and Cassidy, Melua isn't confined to any genre, though her songbag is nowhere near as diverse as that of the Maryland singer she pays tribute to in "Faraway Voice," one of two originals. She covers bluesman John Mayall's "Crawling Up a Hill," Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today," Robert Shelton's "Lilac Wine" (a '50s standard covered by such disparate artists as Nina Simone and Jeff Buckley) and "Learnin' the Blues," another pop chestnut most famously rendered by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.
Melua's take on "Learnin' the Blues" is one of two performances likely to evoke Jones, with Melua's languid, yearning reading capturing the song's melancholy as Batt's supple piano softens its hard lesson. The other is the album's title track, the best of six Batt originals. A faux torch ballad with a lazy Hoagy Carmichael pace, it makes the case that as elusive as love may be, it can arrive when you least expect it. Against a gauzy background of strings and airy trumpet, Melua confesses, "Now that I've found you, I'll call off the search."
The problem is Batt's writing -- specifically, cliched lyrics. Case in point: "The Closest Thing to Crazy" has a graceful melody with cello counterpoint, but the message -- love can make you happy and miserable at once -- is hardly revelatory. A similar dearth of imagination undermines "Blame It on the Moon" and the barrelhouse blues-lite "My Aphrodisiac Is You."
Again like Norah Jones, Melua is blessed with sultry good looks and an intriguing back story. Born in Georgia (the Russian version), Melua moved to Belfast at age 8 when her father, a heart surgeon, sought work outside the crumbing communist empire. Later the family relocated to London, where, at 16, Melua won a spot at the "Fame"-like BRIT School for Performing Arts & Technology, where she met Batt. The producer was looking for a singer like Eva Cassidy; Melua impressed him with "Faraway Voice," and the appropriately spare version here does evoke Cassidy's grace and sweetness. As for the other Melua original, "Belfast (Penguins and Cats)," it suggests she is still finding her way as a writer.
Which is as it should be: At 19, Melua is just learning her craft, shaping her sound. She reportedly learned most of her covers from songbooks, not recordings, and though mostly free of influence, she's a bit green as an interpreter. Still, a maturity that belies Melua's youth peeks through frequently enough to suggest a future exploring what Norah Jones's producer, Arif Mardin, calls "heartfelt music" -- songs that rely on such retro virtues as melody, lyricism and understated performance.