One of Europe's top-selling female artists, England-based, Georgia-born Katie Melua is virtually unheard of anywhere else. Considering the tacky fluff that often dominates continental pop, evidenced each year by the appalling parade of the Eurovision song contest, this might not seem like the greatest loss. But The House—an assured, mature collaboration with producer William Orbit—proves to be a work of a different caliber, an often great breakthrough that, with any luck, will push her star higher on this side of the Atlantic.
Opener "I'd Love to Kill You" is a carefully plotted track that anticipates the high points of the album: patient, often icily distant, with a spacious backing that's consistently transforming. "No Fear of Heights" drapes this same formula over silky strings and some barely discernable acoustic guitar. While never as stylistically ambitious, The House often has the comfortable feel of the unreleased version of Fiona Apple'sExtraordinary Machine. Like Jon Brion did there, Orbit presents a concerted production effort that fits the singer's skills like a glove.
Melua remains something of a cipher, pushed and pulled by the demands of Orbit's lush backing work, but the heights it enables her to reach are often marvelous. "Plague of Love" has the bony spunk of '80s Bowie, playing like a busier version of "China Girl." There are other problems though, most often in the slackness of Melua's lyrics, which stray too far into mindless pop territory on songs too bare for that kind of inanity: For example, "Twisted" begins with the facile couplet, "Shouldn't keep dreaming of you/It's something I swore I wouldn't do."
There are also times when her sweet voice isn't fully up to the caliber of the material, as on "God on the Drums, Devil on the Bass," which might have been something truly sinister in the hands of an artist like PJ Harvey. Here it's a slightly silly costume track, allowing the singer to dabble in a more aggressive persona. Orbit's production doesn't find as forceful a match as it did with Madonna on Ray of Light, and Melua's style still seems too thin to support true greatness, but The House is a promising start, a sporadically grand album that finds another talented artist rescued from mediocre pop oblivion.