Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Madeleine Peyroux: "Half the Perfect World" CD Review

It’s hard enough to hear “Jingle Bells” at Christmas time, harder in early October, even if it is just the first few bars of Joni Mitchell’s “River.” But that’s how Mitchell started the song, and it’s how producer Larry Klein chose to begin the version that pairs Madeleine Peyroux with k.d. lang on Peyroux’s fourth and latest CD, Half the Perfect World.

As it happens, Klein is Mitchell’s ex-producer, ex-bass player, and ex-husband. And “River” is a song about Christmas, sort of . . . actually, it’s more about self-recrimination, longing, and regret for love stupidly lost. Mitchell’s original recording on the spare and searing Blue (1971, not produced by Klein) still makes you want to rip your heart out.

The song has since been covered by dozens of artists, from Rosanne Cash to Renee Fleming, Barry Manilow, and Dianne Reeves. On Half the Perfect World, Peyroux’s is the first voice you hear, wistful and a bit tentative on the first half of the first verse (“It’s coming on Christmas/They’re cutting down trees”). Her landings on a few of the notes are less than sure-footed. Then lang enters (“But it don’t snow here/It stays pretty green”), certain and strong, and suddenly the song has the texture, depth, and mystery of smoke on blue velvet.

“River” is the track I keep returning to on this CD, despite the “Jingle Bells” intro. It’s my favorite. In some ways, it reminds me of the Cyndi Lauper/Sarah McLachlan duet on “Time After Time” on Lauper’s The Body Acoustic (2006), another gorgeous surprise. And it makes me dream of another two voices I’d love to hear together someday: Diana Krall and Lyle Lovett. Think about it. They both have that languorous swing and little growl. Tommy LiPuma, please call Lovett’s agent.

On “River,” Peyroux and lang trade verses and even phrases; you never hear them sing together. As the song progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell them apart. You have to listen closely to distinguish Peyroux’s tremor from lang’s vibrato. Clue: The big intervals and high notes are left to lang.

“River” is the CD’s sole duet. Of the other 11 selections, four are new and seven are covers. The CD begins with a new tune co-written by Peyroux, Klein, and Walter Becker, half of Steely Dan. In “I’m All Right,” a woman remembers a lover who smoked cigars in bed, tossed her things around, and ended up with her car—but she’ll survive, she’s been lonely before. It’s a looking-back song about moving on, with a bouncy melody and upbeat instrumentals: Peyroux’s strummy guitar, Sam Yahel’s sassy Wurlitzer Piano and Hammond organ. Peyroux even laughs at the end.

It’s a charming start to what’s largely an upbeat album, a change for the moody Peyroux. Klein also produced Careless Love (2004), Peyroux’s previous hit CD, which has sold over a million so far. He tells amazon.co.uk, “This is a much more optimistic record than the last record was.” Peyroux adds, “There’s a unison of joy . . . on this record.” I’m not quite sure what she means by that, but it sounds good—and so does much of the CD.

Three more originals reunite the team of Peyroux, Klein, and singer/songwriter Jesse Harris, who penned Norah Jones’s “Don’t Know Why.” Earlier, they collaborated on the Careless Love single “Don’t Wait Too Long.” On Half the Perfect World, “Once in a While” revisits the it’s-over-but-I’ll-make-it territory of “I’m All Right” and adds the lilt of a string quartet, unexpected and a touch too sweet. “A Little Bit” veers into country rock, pairing Dean Parks’s guitar with Peyroux’s.

“California Rain” is a showcase for the voice that’s been compared from the start to Billie Holiday, though it’s past time for that comparison to end; it’s not fair to either artist. Holiday stands alone, and so, increasingly, does Peyroux; her sound is instantly recognizable if you’ve heard it even briefly before, and her styles—of singing, playing guitar, and inhabiting a song—are her own.

The seven covers on the CD run the gamut from Johnny Mercer’s “The Summer Wind” to Tom Waits’s “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night.” Michael Bublé recently recorded a live version of “The Summer Wind” for Caught in the Act (2005), part of PBS’s Great Performances series. His super-swingy, big-band performance evokes Frank Sinatra, but so do a lot of his songs (which is not at all a bad thing). Peyroux’s is a whole different story—slow, lazy, laid-back. She might be singing to herself under that blue umbrella sky. Gary Foster’s alto sax comes in just long enough to make us wish he’d stick around. (Foster returns for one more track later on.)

Two of the seven covers are by Leonard Cohen: “Blue Alert” and the title song, “Half the Perfect World.” Both were recorded earlier this year by Anjani Thomas, a.k.a. Anjani, a jazz pianist and singer whose style is torchy and sensual; she wraps her voice around the words like she owns them. Her mentor (and more) is Cohen himself, giving her an inside track that Peyroux doesn’t have. Two things biased me against Peyroux’s takes: hearing Anjani’s, and seeing I’m Your Man, Lian Lunson’s recent documentary portrait of Leonard Cohen.

Lunson’s film moves back-and-forth between interviews with Cohen and performances from a January 2005 tribute concert at the Sydney Opera House organized by Hal Willner. (If Willner ever runs the talent show at your kid’s kindergarten, go.) Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Antony (the ethereal lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons), and Nick Cave, among others, were tapped to cover several of Cohen’s best-known songs (not including “Blue Alert” or “Half the Perfect World”). Their performances are passionate and intense; each one leaves you breathless. Peyroux’s are committed but don’t scale the heights. “Blue Alert” is relaxed and jazzy; “Half the Perfect World” more convincing but too restrained. Although both are beautiful, neither moves me.

For the CD’s almost obligatory French café song (Peyroux spent many years living in Paris), Serge Gainsbourg’s La Javanaise is a fine choice. Gainsbourg also wrote the naughty “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus;” perhaps Peyroux will record that next? Imagine who might sing it with her. (Curtis Stigers is a married man.)

On “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night,” she turns Tom Waits’s urban journey into a country-flavored croon. The song has a nostalgic, melancholy air, maybe because it’s more than 30 years old. (Sample lyrics: “Well you gassed her up/Behind the wheel/With your arm around your sweet one/In your Oldsmobile”) The country feel is underscored by Greg Leisz’s pedal steel guitar.

The final two covers are Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” and Charles Chaplin’s “Smile.” The first precedes “River,” the second ends the CD. I’m sorry, but I’ve never liked “Everybody’s Talkin’,” not even on the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack, where it was sung by Harry Nilsson. At least Peyroux doesn’t do that horrid “wah-wah” thing Nilsson does partway through the song. She steps back from the mike and lets the musicians carry the tune.

“Smile” might easily have been hokey (many recordings of Chaplin’s song are—hello, Michael Bolton), but it’s not. By keeping it simple, Peyroux makes it credible and compelling. “Smile, though your heart is breaking/Smile, even though it’s aching….” Well, all right! Good idea! Let’s do it! The clincher is Till Bronner’s muted trumpet.

The core musicians throughout Half the Perfect World are Sam Yahel, Dean Parks, David Piltch (bass), and Jay Belarose (drums). Larry Goldings stops by for some celeste and Wurlitzer piano. Peyroux plays guitar on several tracks; her style is quirky and distinctive. The arrangements are understated and mellow: acoustic guitars, silky brushes on drums, soft sax and trumpet, the caress of pedal steel.

This is, in the end, a late-night recording, with many quiet moments and spaces between sounds. Peyroux likes quiet; she has said that “silence is not just an absence of sound.” Shirley Horn knew all about silence and spacing and letting the music breathe. Maybe it’s wrong to expect Madeleine Peyroux to belt out a Leonard Cohen tune. Maybe I’ll listen to “Blue Alert” again.


Released by Rounder, the venerable independent label, Half the Perfect World will probably be Peyroux’s biggest success to date. That’s what Rounder is hoping for, if her tour schedule is any indication. To promote Careless Love, Peyroux traveled to clubs like the Dakota in Minneapolis, the Hot House in Chicago, and the Cabaret La Tulipe in Montreal. This time, it’s theaters like the Paramount in Denver (seating capacity: just under 1,900) and the State in Minneapolis (2,200), where Peyroux will perform this Friday, October 13.

Tickets are still available for the State through Ticketmaster. Or stay home and view the video of “I’m All Right” at Peyroux’s Web site. It has a traveling-circus-shot-at-night-in-the-middle-of-a-field theme, reminiscent of Fellini and HBO’s canceled Carnivále. Fun to watch, but deeply strange. 

Originally published at JazzPolice.com.

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