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(Rounder Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/25/2005)
The chanteuse has definitely made a comeback. In these days of aggressive pop music, or rap which has no melody at all, music fans of several generations seem to be turning to the romantic female vocalist who shows influence by the torch- and cabaret singers of the past, like Edith Piaf, Josephine Baker and even Billie Holiday. The great commercial success of Norah Jones is testament to that, though almost 15 years before Ms. Jones' emergence, k.d. lang was bringing her own touch to the style. Today, we have no shortage of chanteuse-style singers, and in jazz, it seems that most of the jazz CDs being released are by woman singers.
This week we have a new recording by one of the bright lights on the scene. Madeleine Peyroux, whose fine new third CD is called Half the Perfect World.
Madeleine Peyroux has, I suppose, the perfect background for the role. A native of Georgia, she moved to Paris at age 13, and spent ten years there, absorbing the music scene and performing as a street musician, in cabarets, and the like. In 1996, at the age of 22, her first album was released, surprisingly on a major label. She had come back to America touring with her Parisian-based band when she was "discovered." That was six years before Norah Jones, by the way. On her debut, called Dreamland, Ms. Peyroux, despite her young age, had an uncanny vocal resemblance to Billie Holiday and her recording reflected the influences of music from the 1920s through the 1940s in its style. She immediately became the darling of critics and sold quite a few records, but apparently the fame was a bit too much, so she retreated from the scene and went back to Paris. Eight years passed before she followed that up with Careless Love in 2004. It was produced by Larry Klein, Joni Mitchell's ex-husband and producer, and featured mostly jazz musicians accompanying her. The recording was a bit more wide-ranging, and her vocals style had also become more individual. Careless Love was also hailed by critics and came to sell over a million copies worldwide.
Now Ms. Peyroux is out with her only her third CD in a decade and Half the Perfect World, and is another gem, and marks further growth for this appealing artist. Musically, this is a much more lighthearted, almost playful sounding recording. It also contains four original songs, marking her further progress as a songwriter. But as she had done in the past, she gives her own very individual, often unexpected treatments to some familiar songs, from composers ranging the classic Tin Pan Alley writer Johnny Mercer to Tom Waits to Leonard Cohen to Joni Mitchell.
The personnel remains largely the same as on Careless Love with Klein serving as producer, joined by guitarist Dean Parks, jazz keyboard men Sam Yahel, who plays in a group with jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman, and Larry Goldings, one of the most creative jazz organists of the day. On bass is David Piltch and alternating on drums are Jay Bellerose and Scott Amendola, of the Charlie Hunter band. There are some interesting sonic colors added here and there, such as the steel guitar of Greg Leisz, and a string quartet. And k.d. lang herself makes a guest appearance on one piece. The title track from Ms. Peyroux' last album Careless Love was done in an appealing, bouncy swing setting that definitely evoked the feeling that everybody playing on the CD was enjoying themselves. That same kind of musical approach and fun-loving mood is apparent on quite a few of this CD's tracks, in some cases more appropriately than others. But overall, the CD is exceptionally tasteful.
Things get under way with one of the original songs, I'm All Right. Ms. Peyroux wrote it with Steely Dan's Walter Becker and producer Larry Klein. The piece assumes the happy-go-lucky, swingy beat, while the lyrics go on about a breakup. <<>>
That leads into the Johnny Mercer classic The Summer Wind. This song is usually done as a ballad, and often as a big production number. Ms. Peyroux and her colleagues blow that all away with their breezy reinvention of the tune. <<>>
One of two Leonard Cohen songs on the CD is Blue Alert. It also bounces along in an appealingly laid-back style. The song is written from a man's point of view, but they lyrics leave one wondering. <<>>
One of the most appealing of the cover songs is the Fred Neil composition Everybody's Talking, a hit around 1970 for Harry Nilsson, and a standard on the folk scene at the time. Ms. Peyroux gives it the full chanteuse approach with some opportunities for instrumental solos. Ms. Peyroux' vocal performance is especially memorable. <<>>
Another familiar song given the Madeleine Peyroux treatment is Tom Waits' (Looking for) the Heart of Saturday Night. Greg Leisz' steel guitar provides a sonic texture somewhere between country and spacey. <<>>
My favorite of Ms. Peyroux' original songs on the CD called A Little Bit. The lyrics, apparently about taking what one can get, are set in a musical arrangement that hints at old soul songs. <<>>
After a decade in Paris, it's not surprising that Ms. Peyroux would do something in French. Previously she did a very authentic version of La Vie en Rose. This time, she does a less familiar song, La Javanaise, by composer Serge Gainsbourg, known for his popular songs of the 1960s. She is joined by a string quartet to give the piece a very elegant setting. <<>>
The track with the guest appearance by k.d. lang is a cover of Joni Mitchell's River. The sad song is allowed to remain that way musically. Ms. Peyroux and Ms. Lang are wonderfully compatible on this song, as they alternate stanzas. Sometimes it's hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. <<>>
The CD concludes with another rather unlikely cover, Smile, by which was written by Charlie Chaplin. Dean Parks gets out his ukulele, for another of those bouncy arrangements. It's nicely done, but by this point on the CD, style doesn't sound as fresh. <<>>
Madeleine Peyroux' new CD Half the Perfect World is a fine recording by one of the most appealing of the new generation of chanteuse-style vocalists. She has branched out on this album with wider range of material. And instead of being the intense, world-weary singer of ballads and torch songs, her musical person can assume a more whimsical bent, and she frequently sounds as if she is having a good time with the band. The cover songs are given creative arrangements that can turn a familiar tune into virtually a whole new song, and her four original compositions are very respectable and are definitely in the league with the works of the great songwriters elsewhere on the CD. The band is first-rate, and having worked with her previously, there is a palpable musical kinship that is apparent and really adds to the CDs appeal.
Sonically, the recording gets about a grade "B" from me. Again, it's problem of dynamic range, and the volume compression done to this CD, probably in an effort to make this intimate acoustic music sound as loud as a rock album. But it's not as bad as on her last album, which was greatly undermined by the heavy-handed compression. And the new CD does often capture an intimate sound well, especially on Ms. Peyroux' vocal.
One does not need to look very far to find worthy recordings by chanteuse-style singers. Madeleine Peyroux is one of the best of the young generation, and she improves at each new recording.
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