It’s tempting to begin this review with, “Call off the search! We’ve found the next Norah!” Upon first listen, all the variables are in place for a Blue Note copycat: the drowsy torch songs; the pensive, non-threatening expression; the curly, chocolate-colored hair—but Katie Melua’s Call Off The Search is no musical Ovaltine. The very first note out of the USSR-born, Ireland-raised 19-year-old instantly grabs your attention, her voice part cupie-doll croon, part seasoned pro, her phrasing dramatic yet fresh and precocious. The trouble is that it’s not hard to picture Melua belting out “Black Velvet” on American Idol to thunderous applause and an across-the-board endorsement from the judges (yes, even from Simon). Mentor/producer Mike Batt composed the lion’s share of Call Off The Search, and while his songs are first-rate (the title track, “Blame It On The Moon”) and his arrangements consistently provide Melua with a theatrical yet stripped-down venue for her interpretations, the singer’s own songwriting contributions are limited to just two tracks (despite a myriad of photographs which find her posing with an acoustic guitar). “Belfast,” a charming song about the clash of religion in the Irish city, and “Faraway Voice,” a lovely lament for the late Eva Cassidy, prove Melua has huge potential as a songwriter, but they also hint that her true calling is as a folkie rather than a jazz chanteuse. Melua shines on the album’s requisite standards, one of which (“Lilac Wine”) conjures a couple of other lost souls (specifically Nina Simone and Jeff Buckley). While recordings like the classic “Learnin’ The Blues” find Melua still honing the lower, sultrier part of her voice, this teen is anything but green.
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