If vocalist Norah Jones has proved anything, it's that an easy-listening brand of jazz-tinged singing can reach a massive, crossover audience.
Singer-pianist Diana Krall — who was the Norah Jones of the '90s, albeit on a smaller scale — has wasted no time trying to catch up with her successor, in the form of her newest release, The Girl in the Other Room (Verve).
In stores on Tuesday and sure to be driven by heavy marketing and promotion, the new opus practically begs for popular acceptance, and not only because its tracks borrow from all manner of pop genres.
Equally important, the recording unveils the artistic partnership of Krall and her husband, pop songwriter Elvis Costello, who collaborated with Krall in penning several of the CD's new tunes, including the title track.
Artistically, alas, the teaming of Krall and Costello is not a match made in heaven. Or, to put it in other terms, the reputations of such songwriting partnerships as the Gershwin brothers or Rodgers and Hart will remain safe in the face of this work.
The central problem concerns Krall's music, which proves so melodically unmemorable and harmonically unattractive that no lyrics — not even Costello's — could save it. His idiosyncratic writing style, so thick in imagery and metaphor, simply cannot survive the ungainly and unnatural melody lines to which it's subjected.
The title cut, in fact, is the only one of the Krall-Costello songs with some appeal, and it's also the only song for which Costello helped pen the music, as well as the lyrics. The man knows how to craft a tune that can be persuasively sung and easily absorbed; his partner, unfortunately, does not.
The other cuts on the disc feature Krall's jazz-lite versions of music by significant songwriters, which should please Krall's fans, if no one else. Whether the world really needs more muted, watered-down versions of Mose Allison's "Stop This World," Tom Waits' "Temptation" or Joni Mitchell's "Black Crow" seems doubtful. And Krall's anemic attempt to sing the blues, in "Love Me Like a Man," may represent a new low point in the genre.
To her credit, Krall hired as back-up musicians the best jazz instrumentalists that money could buy, and they're a pleasure to hear. Guitarist Anthony Wilson, Hammond B-3 organist Neil Larsen and bassist Christian McBride, especially, bring palpable artistic heft and depth to the proceedings. They certainly help counterbalance Krall's astonishingly limited vocals and mundanely predictable pianism.
Ultimately, The Girl in the Other Room emerges as neither real jazz nor credible pop, neither a work of significant song interpretation nor a collection of genuinely worthy compositions.
By comparison, it makes Norah Jones sound like the real thing.