JULIA FORDHAM

"That's Life"

Vanguard

The fourth song on Julia Fordham's new album, "That's Life," is "Jump," which issues this challenge to a hesitant lover: "Let's do it; let's jump in with both feet -- full-throttle, maximum heat." It's certainly an alluring invitation, given Fordham's sultry alto, her seductive chord changes and the sinuous groove served up by the Beatles' former organist Billy Preston and Steely Dan's former guitarist Dean Parks. But there's something curiously laid-back about this summons to impulsive action. The tempo is relaxed and the language is lazy, as if the situation really weren't that urgent after all.

This paradox of captivating music married to an underwhelming message is true of the entire album. Fordham, who enjoyed modest stardom at home in England before settling into indie-label adult pop, is an impressive singer with a velvety tone in four octaves. She writes beguiling melodies and jazz-flavored harmonies, and producer Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell) helps Fordham achieve sophisticated, uncluttered arrangements.

Unlike Mitchell, though, Fordham is a pedestrian lyricist; even when she stumbles upon a good line, such as "sifting the sand for sugar" from the opening track, "Sugar," she doesn't know how to follow it up. And she is so committed to the tasteful restraint of the adult-contemporary radio format that it seems as if nothing is at stake in the songs.

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing Monday at Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis and Tuesday at the Birchmere. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Julia Fordham, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8104. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)