Cullum’s introduction to American audiences was last year’s Twentysomething, a pleasant, slightly quirky set of jazzish tunes that instantly established him as a new go-to guy for fans of inoffensive, highly polished pop. Harry Connick, Jr. is the lazy comparison, but I don’t think it’s really accurate; for all the slight musical detours he’s made (She, Star Turtle), Connick’s a traditionalist at heart. Cullum, on the other hand, comes across as more of an omnivore. Everything about his delivery and phrasing screams “old-school showman” — he covers up for his rather limited vocal and piano chops just as smoothly as any lounge singer or Nordstrom pianist ever has — but he also takes pains to present himself as all things to all ages. Twentysomething included covers of songs by Radiohead, Jeff Buckley, and Pharrell Williams alongside stuff like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “I Get A Kick Out of You”; Catching Tales, though much heavier on original material, makes room for both The Doves’ “Catch the Sun” and the ’50s chestnut “I Only Have Eyes for You.”
You get the idea.
The overall effect is, I think, a little polarizing. The music, for one thing, is more than a little bland — it’s the kind of stuff I imagine Josh Groban fans listen to when they’re feeling rowdy — but beyond that, it’s hard not to be at least somewhat cynical about a performer this aggressively eclectic. And please, trolls, before you come lumbering out from your caves to accuse me of trying to fit every performer in a neat little box, or not being able to appreciate something “fresh-sounding” or “a little different,” take a minute to understand that I’m not criticizing Cullum’s eclecticism per se, just the way it’s presented. There’s a difference between being so in love with music that you can’t help cross-pollinating and just showing off. In other words, is Cullum doing it because he wants to, or simply because he can? Or — even worse — because Verve thinks it’s a neat way of crossing demographics?
These questions might seem needlessly fussy, but to me, they’re relevant, because despite all of the above, Cullum’s pretty talented. Tracks like “Get Your Way” (download) and “Photograph” (download) hint strongly at the type of performer he could be if he concentrated more on solid, timeless songwriting and less on being an ivory-tinkling karaoke machine for the junior Geritol set. Most of the time, though, he leans on shtick more suited to a cheap magic act, whether it’s the showy genre-hopping, or the cheekily profane lyrics he occasionally drops.
On the other hand, it isn’t often that an album so grandma-friendly contains words like “twat” — making this a uniquely tempting Christmas gift for sniggering grandchildren everywhere. I know what my grandparents are getting this holiday season.