I first heard Madeleine Peyroux in a tiny restaurant in rural Maine; upon asking one of the staff who it was on the stereo, I was met with this response: "It's either Billie Holiday ... or it's that woman who sounds just like Billie Holiday."
That comparison still holds true — and hopefully always will. Not because Peyroux always hits her mark — she certainly doesn't — but because it would be a shame for her to abandon a niche that works so well with her voice. "Instead," the opening track of Peyroux's new CD, "Bare Bones" (Rounder), is especially captivating, with her lilting voice channeling an old-timey jazz-lounge singer. Her longtime producer, Larry Klein, aces the song's sound, with his Estey organ humming alongside charming little piano flourishes.
The song is classic Peyroux in style, and yet "Bare Bones" is not a completely typical Peyroux album.
Instead of devoting herself to her usual task of song re-interpretation, Peyroux has songwriting credits on every track here. Even with an experienced team of co-writers, she still has her share of cringe-worthy lyrics ("My heart is like a hand-me-down made soft by older brothers" on "Damn the Circumstances"), but that's not too surprising for an album that contains more originals than her previous three releases combined.
It's an interesting choice for her to change course more than a decade into her career — but "Bones" as an album is no more or less successful than her previous works. The difference, though, is that these songs succeed or fail based on their own sound, not in comparison to an original recording. Where covers always carry a preconceived notion of how a song is "supposed" to sound (her passionless version of Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love" was particularly egregious), she makes a wise choice to give her listeners a blank slate on "Bare Bones."
Not every song here rises above the merely pleasant, but Peyroux does unveil a few standouts. "River of Tears" is a stunning breakup song; its unhurried tempo conveys the suspended state where one must adjust to new circumstances. The folksy "Somethin' Grand" shows more vocal range than Peyroux typically does, while the haunting "Love and Treachery" is a perfect match for her smoky voice.
There are a few surprising moments here (she really does say "screwed like a high-school cheerleader" on "You Can't Do Me") but those moments are the exception. That's perfectly OK, though: it's tough to imagine a genre for which Peyroux's voice would be better suited.
Written by Express contributor Catherine Lewis
.: Originally published: ExpressNightOut.com: 9 March 2009.