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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1720

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Madeleine Peyroux: The Blue Room
by George Graham

(Decca 80018100 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/27/2013)

The style of singing that many have called the chanteuse has attracted a fairly good-sized audience over the years, and last week, we featured an album by the male counterpart, a crooner, Spencer Day. But this week, we have a coincidentally-released new recording by one of the first of the younger-generation of women artists to achieve success drawing on the style of jazz and cabaret vocalists, Madeleine Peyroux. The CD is called The Blue Room.

Norah Jones came to epitomize the style with her 2002 debut album Come Away with Me. But six years earlier, in 1996, Madeleine Peyroux made her debut solo recording Dreamland which attracted a fair amount of attention at the time. Ms. Peyroux could properly be called a chanteuse since she literally sang on the streets and cabarets of Paris, where she had moved with her mother following her parents' separation. She was just 23 at the time of Dreamland, but many critics felt she was able to channel the late Billie Holiday in her vocal quality and style, without its being a caricature. But Ms. Peyroux did not help to advance her career's commercial success by essentially dropping out of sight for better than five years, again going back to Paris and busking on the streets and cafes. She eventually returned to the US spending time on both coasts, before going back finally going back into the studio in 2004, on a somewhat ill-fated joint project with multi-instrumentalist William Galison, which resulted in a lawsuit over who would get credit. Ms. Peyroux released her second album, Careless Love, nearly eight years after her debut, and began her ongoing association with producer Larry Klein, who was known for his work with his ex-wife Joni Mitchell. With Norah Jones by then a household word, Ms. Peyroux enjoyed a good deal of success with Careless Love which sold over a million copies.

While Ms. Peyroux has written a number of the songs she recorded, and indeed her last album from 2011 was primarily original tunes, she is still best-known as a chanteuse, giving her interpretations of the songs of others, from jazz standards to more contemporary works.

After working with a different producer on her last album, she reunited with Larry Klein for Blue Room, her seventh solo release, and it's all covers. And in fact it pays tribute to Ray Charles' 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, in which Ray Charles surprised a lot of people by doing rather orchestrated versions of country tunes, but giving them his unique touch. Ms. Peyroux' The Blue Room features a number of the same songs that Ray Charles did on that 1962 album and its sequel the following year, but producer Klein and Ms. Peyroux add some slightly more contemporary songs from the pens of Randy Newman, Warren Zevon, John Hartford, and another composer whose work Ms. Peyroux had visited in the past Leonard Cohen. She worked with many of the same jazz-oriented musicians with whom she recorded on her 2009 album Bare Bones, plus a majority of the tracks feature some rather lush but subtle string arrangements by Vince Mendoza, known for his fine orchestrations in the jazz world. The band on The Blue Room includes keyboard man Larry Goldings, guitarist Dean Parks, who occasionally is heard on steel guitar to provide further echoes of Ray Charles' country albums, plus David Piltch on bass and Jay Bellarose on drums.

While there is a hint of country twang on the album, many of the songs selected for The Blue Room were recognizable old hits from the country world even before Ray Charles did his album, so the country style is implicit. But Ms. Peyroux and her colleagues tend to move the songs in different directions, often giving them a kind of playful, loping beat that is hardly the usual four-square rhythm of country. And with a voice that still has hints of Billie Holiday, Ms. Peyroux is not exactly the country singer, any more, I suppose, than Ray Charles was back in 1962 when he did his album of country songs.

The Blue Room opens with Take These Chains from My Heart which was originally a 1953 hit for Hank Williams. Ms. Peyroux gets into her trademark easy swinging rhythm, while the string orchestra is heard in the background punctuated with occasional twangs from the steel guitar. It's a fun reworking of the song. <<>>

Another pleasant surprise is the version of the Everly Brothers big hit Bye Bye Love. Again, Ms. Peyroux gives it an almost playful quality. <<>>

With a more contemplative treatment is Born to Lose, that was also a hit for Ray Charles. The string orchestra and the rhythm section give the piece a nice atmospheric quality, while Ms. Peyroux's vocal performance is impressive. <<>>

Interestingly, the most country-sounding track on the album is the Randy Newman song Guilty, on which the string arrangements get a little over-the-top, though Ms. Peyroux's vocal is just wonderful. <<>>

Ms. Peyroux and her musical colleagues have the ability to give a light touch to most of the material, which could easily get sappy. One tune that gets a bit bogged down in musical sentimentality is interestingly not from the country world, but one from a composer Ms. Peyroux has covered before, Leonard Cohen's Bird on the Wire. <<>>

Probably the best-known Ray Charles country cover is I Can't Stop Loving You. Ms. Peyroux includes it and does a very nice performance with just enough of a hint of country to remind one of the song's origin, while giving it her Billie Holiday vocal touches. <<>>

Another of the famous Ray Charles country covers that Ms. Peyroux explores is You Don't Know Me, by Eddie Arnold. The string section is rather prominent, contrasting with Ms. Peyroux's spare vocal performance. <<>>

Probably the best use of the orchestral arrangements comes on Gentle on My Mind the John Hartford composition made famous by Glen Campbell. The result is surprisingly atmospheric which seems to fit well with the lyrics. <<>>

Madeleine Peyroux's new seventh album The Blue Room reunites her with producer Larry Klein for a project that is a little unusual for her, an album of all cover tunes, and one based on Ray Charles' early 1960s albums of country covers -- essentially a tribute to a tribute album. Ms. Peyroux, Ray Charles and country music would not seem to have much that would fit together very well. But it works, thanks to Ms. Peyroux's wonderfully subtle vocals that can wrap themselves around just about anything she tries, and the very tasteful backing group, whose hints of the country music background of the songs on the album remain just that, hints rather than all-out twang. The string orchestrations are a bit of a surprise, but arranger Vince Mendoza avoids the cliches of such orchestrated pop. The result is a very nice album that is the epitome of an interesting chanteuse recording.

Our audio-quality grade is close to an "A." The sound is clean, Ms. Peyroux's voice has a warm, intimate sound and the orchestra is especially well-recorded, with a subtle, somewhat ethereal sound.

There are now several good contemporary women vocalists on the scene known for their jazzy or romantic pre-rock sound. Madeleine Peyroux has been one of the best throughout her career, and her new CD, despite the lack of any original material, is a thoroughly worthwhile musical venture.

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