Madeleine Peyroux tiptoes around the legacy of Ray Charles

by

comment

Madeleine Peyroux
  • Rocky Schenck
  • Madeleine Peyroux
I've often disparaged what I call producer's records, where someone other than the artist is the one making key creative decisions (or even dreaming up the concept for a concept album). Few recent releases fit this description better than The Blue Room (Decca), the latest from genre-averse singer Madeleine Peyroux. In his liner notes, Michael Cuscuna describes the impact that the classic 1962 Ray Charles album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music had on producer Larry Klein when he first encountered it as a 12-year-old in the late 60s. He frequently revisited the album often over the next four decades until finally realizing it would be the perfect recording project for Peyroux: "She comes from the same places—jazz, country and blues." (Never mind that tons of artists active in 2013 also come from those same places.) Indeed, Peyroux has proved successful at tackling a wide variety of material, but her delicate, refined voice has little in common with Charles's.

Peyroux does a fine job applying her own mix of quirky balladry and insouciant post-swing to many of the tunes that Charles interpreted on two successful country collections five decades ago—among them the Hank Williams classic "Take These Chains From My Heart," the Everly Brothers staple "Bye Bye Love," and the Kitty Wells hit "I Can't Stop Loving You," which Charles pretty much made his own. Along the way she adds a few songs of more recent vintage: Randy Newman's "Guilty," Warren Zevon's "Desperadoes Under the Eaves," and the Buddy Holly obscurity "Changing All Those Changes," the video for which is below. (For the time being you can stream the entire album at the Wall Street Journal.) Cuscuna's liner notes also point out that Peyroux and Klein didn't try to replicate the Charles recordings—a wise move—but if you're not going to add something to the tunes or bring the same kind of soul that coursed through Charles's blood, then what's the big deal?

For seven of the album's ten tracks, Vince Mendoza wrote refined string arrangements, and they consistently feel out of place; instead of meshing with the core backing band (drummer Jay Bellerose, bassist David Piltch, organist Larry Goldings, and guitarist and pedal steel whiz Dean Parks), they're mostly just gilding the lily. The presence of the strings is surely a hat tip to the Charles recordings, whose countrypolitan arrangements treated the rhythm section and the strings as part of the same orchestra, but here the two elements feel grafted together. Peyroux plays the Old Town School on Friday, fronting a sextet that includes terrific organist Gary Versace and only a single string player, violinist Sylvia D'Avanzo; I'm expecting the lugubrious orchestrations to be all but absent.

Today's playlist:

Mirroring, Foreign Body (Kranky)
Off!, Off! (Vice)
Mary Lou Williams, The London Sessions (Vogue/Sony-BMG)
Adam Sonderberg, Say No (Cathnor)
A Broken Consort, Crow Autumn (Tompkins Square)

Add a comment