As a keyboard-playing singer-songwriter who values subtlety — and comes bearing the Arif Mardin seal of approval — Keri Noble is bound to draw comparisons to Norah Jones. But at this low-key showcase, the 26-year-old sidestepped those presumptions by playing a set that was less jazzy, less bashful and more accepting of pop convention.
Noble’s chief asset is a throaty-but-lithe voice that’s reminiscent of Joan Osborne in that it’s steeped in the blues but flecked with enough arty flourishes to fend off charges of simple revivalism. She showcased those pipes to best effect on an intense version of the moody “Let It Rain,” one of the highlights of her just-released EMI-Manhattan debut “Fearless.”
The Motowner, who trumpeted her hometown allegiance on a T-shirt emblazoned with the legend “Pure Detroit,” took her sonic cues from heartland rock and her better lyrical gambits from post-feminist philosophy. Those dovetailed nicely on the jut-jawed “I Won’t,” a smartly constructed kiss-off with a sing-along chorus.
Noble has yet to fully find her voice as a writer. She’s capable of unwinding a teasing stream-of-consciousness finger-snapper like “About Me” — buoyed here by Rob Arthur’s ’70s-inspired organ — but she can also be sucked into a confessional undertow, as in “Talk to Me.”
Set lost momentum whenever Noble ventured into the sort of ether-pop that’s seemingly expected of all female singer-songwriters in the post-Sarah McLachlan era. While she nailed down the requisite vocal trills and breathy asides in songs like “Falling,” she sold herself short by backing down from the genuine personality that imbues her more rough-hewn material.
Keri Noble plays the Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles on April 16.