Dramatico - 2005 - 43 minutes

Melua's debut album 'Call off the Search' and its no escape single 'Closest Thing to Crazy' wound up the MOR haters no end. And now she's baited the boffins, who have taken exception to the lyrics to her new song 'Nine Million Bicycles' ("We are 12 billion light years from the edge/That's a guess, no-one can ever say it's true"). But neither spite nor science will prevent 'Piece by Piece' from racking up the same telephone number sales as its predecessor.

The slickness and polish here (the Irish Film Orchestra, Wombles creator Mike Batt's suitably cuddly production) prove that Melua's debut had talent behind the luck and suggest she's plenty of albums ahead of her. What she doesn't have, however, is the presence to carry off the more raunchy numbers ('Halfway Up the Hindu Kush', 'Blues in the Night'). Her voice is wholesome, not wanton, and 'Piece by Piece' works best when she favours sweet ('Bicycles', 'Stars', 'I Cried for You') over sultry.

If Dinosaur Jr's cover of The Cure's 'Just Like Heaven' was at one extreme, then Melua's take on the track is at the other. Its gentleness could serve as the reddest of rags to fans of either outfit, but Melua does make the song her own. And while you wouldn't fancy hearing her take on 'A Forest', 'Pictures of You' would be an intriguing prospect.

This is an album that deserves (grudging) respect because, while it's obvious in many places, it's done well and memorably. What Melua really needs to do now is move away from the gloss and make a record that strips her sound right down. It might alienate some of her fans, but it could win her plenty of others. And, after all, having got on the nerves of so many, it would be a shame for anyone to feel left out.

Harry Guerin

Tracklisting: Shy Boy - Nine Million Bicycles  - Piece By Piece - Halfway Up the Hindu Kush - Blues in the Night - Spider's Web - Blue Shoes - On the Road Again Thankyou, Stars - Just Like Have - I Cried for You - I Do Believe in Love