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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1552

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Madeleine Peyroux: Bare Bones
by George Graham

(Rounder 11661-3272 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/1/2009)

The revival of the chanteuse style of singer continues unabated, with ever more album releases by female vocalists in a jazzy or romantic sound. One of the best of the current generation is Madeleine Peyroux, whose new CD is called Bare Bones. Perhaps it's fatigue with power-rocking women, or vacuous female pop stars or even sincere folkies, but there seem to be more women going for a sound influenced by icons like Edith Piaf or Billie Holiday, even within the context of a rock band. The trend goes back to k.d. lang in the 1980s, and reached a kind of peak with the popularity of Norah Jones' debut album in 2002.

But Madeleine Peyroux, made her debut in 1996 at age 22, and the word chanteuse was especially appropriate for her. A native of Georgia, she was the daughter of two artistic parents -- she readily describes them as "hippies," and after they separated, she moved to Paris with her mother. There she sang on the streets, busking, and eventually began to attract audiences. After her debut Dreamland was released by Atlantic in 1996, it received great critical praise, but Ms. Peyroux was anxious to avoid the spotlight, and retreated back to Paris and kept a very low profile for several years, essentially dropping out of public visibility for American audiences. But she returned in 2004 with a very appealing recording called Careless Love, and this time was somewhat more visible after its release, and it also sold quite well. She followed that two years later with Half the Perfect World, named after a Leonard Cohen song she covered.

Like many of the vocalists in the style, Ms. Peyroux mostly did other people's songs, from the Edith Piaf trademark La Vie En Rose to Tom Waits' (Looking for) the Heart of Saturday Night. But her new CD marks a change: it's her first recording of all-original songs, and she proves to be a fine songwriter, creating material, mostly in collaboration with songwriting partners, that is up to her ever-more-confident and mature vocals.

She is joined by some of the people who have been with her for a couple of albums now, including producer and bassist Larry Klein, who also produced a few albums for his ex-wife Joni Mitchell. On keyboards are a couple of fine jazz players, Larry Goldings on organ and Jim Beard on piano, plus Dean Parks on guitars and other stringed instruments, including mandolin, and Vinnie Colaiuta on the drums. Ms. Peyroux' songwriting partners include Klein, plus Steely Dan's Walter Becker, with whom she wrote two songs, Joe Henry, a singer-songwriter and producer in his own right, and Julian Coryell, the son of jazz guitarist Larry Coryell, who maintains a career as both a singer-songwriter and as jazz-rock fusion guitarist.

As on her last album, Ms. Peyroux' style is not as theatrical as some of the chanteuses of the past, and many of the songs have a kind of whimsical upbeat lilt to them. The accompaniment always sounds intimate, something that was helped by the band mostly playing together with Ms. Peyroux in the studio, with many of the songs being first or second takes.

The CD opens with one of those lighthearted-sounding songs, Instead co-written by Ms. Peyroux and Julian Coryell. Its lyrics provide a message of encouragement. <<>>

One of my favorite tracks is the title piece Bare Bones, the first of the songs co-written with Steely Dan founder Walter Becker, along with Larry Klein. It features an intriguing tune, while the lyrics are an interesting mix of Shakespearean references along with Louisiana swamps. <<>>

River of Tears does have some of the melancholy lyrics one might expect from a chanteuse like Ms. Peyroux. She wrote the song with Larry Klein. <<>>

The other piece co-written with Walter Becker is You Can't Do Me. It was to be released as a single, and has some of the cleverest lyrics on the CD. <<>>

Another highlight of the album is Our Lady of Pigalle. The latter is a reference to the Red Light district of Paris, and the song is about one of the denizens there who plies her ancient trade. Ms. Peyroux' and Larry Klein's writing partner on this was David Buskin. <<>>

Homeless Happiness, written with Julian Coryell, celebrates the bohemian, unattached life, perhaps embuing a bit more glamor to the prospect than might be realistic. But it's a nice song for Ms. Peyroux' musical persona. <<>>

To Love You All Over Again is another of those upbeat-sounding tunes with lyrics not quite as optimistic. Carla Kilstead makes an appearance on fiddle. <<>>

Ms. Peyroux includes a song she wrote by herself for the first time in her recording career. The track is called I Must Be Saved, a song that addresses loss, and how can that can be turned around. <<>>

Madeleine Peyroux' new CD Bare Bones does not quite match its title musically. She has an excellent group joining her throughout the recording, which I think is one of her best. What sets Bare Bones apart from its predecessors is the fact that all the material is original, co-written for the most part by Ms. Peyroux. So in addition to being one the most appealing contemporary chanteuse style vocalists on the scene, she is proving to be an excellent songwriter. She did have some good company writing with such people as Walter Becker, Larry Klein and Joe Henry. But the solo composition proves she's fine on her own terms.

Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. The recording has a nice, warm, intimate sound, but as usual, dynamic range is undermined by volume compression used to make the recording sound louder than it should be.

Madeleine Peyroux was 22 when she emerged with her debut album in a style on which maturity is an asset. Now she's nearly 35 and she brings more authority -- and of course maturity -- to the role of chanteuse without losing a sense whimsy, and relaxed mellow atmosphere that permeates the CD. It's a thoroughly enjoyable recording by one of the best of the current generation of such vocalists.

(c) Copyright 2009 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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