Madeleine Peyroux has charted a unique course as an artist. American by birth, French in adolescence, and completely immersed in both cultures musically, she has built a dedicated following with moody, bluesy interpretations of her own songs, often written in collaboration with others, as well as thoughtfully chosen and neglected classics. She rejects many of the chores of modern music marketing and publicity, which has perhaps limited her exposure, but she does not conceal her devotion to the source of her most identifiable trait, a sometimes uncanny similarity to Billie Holiday in vocal phrasing and tone.
This identification with Lady Day and Peyroux’s embrace of classic American songs may make the casual listener jump to a conclusion: that her new album, The Blue Room, would contain a reading of the 1926 Rodgers and Hart standard wherein the singer longs for the hideaway where she can “wear my trousseau, and Robinson Crusoe, is not so far from worldly cares as our blue room far away upstairs.” Peyroux is definitely in a blue room, but one even farther from Hart’s protagonist than Crusoe, where the blues are real and the past is more recent and rural.
Using Ray Charles’ immortal Modern Sounds in Country Music as the jumping off point, Peyroux and frequent collaborator Larry Klein (ex-husband of Joni Mitchell and producer of her early 80’s albums, as well as works for Shawn Colvin, Tracy Chapman, Walter Becker, and many more), decided to build their project around that lamented era when country and R&B first comingled successfully, reaching unprecedented pop acceptance. Peyroux tackles no less than four Charles classics, Hank Williams’ “Take These Chains,” Frankie Brown’s “Born to Lose,” Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and Cindy Walker and Eddy Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me.” She also shades her blue room with hues from Randy Newman, John Hartford, and Leonard Cohen.
Peyroux has the right style to tackle these songs of loss and yearning, and she has solid winners with Newman’s “Guilty,” Buddy Holly’s “Changing All those Changes,” and Cohen’s signature “Bird on a Wire,” all of which benefit from Klein’s fresh arrangements. Other choices, like a grooving version of the Everlys’ “Bye Bye Love” and a downtempo version of Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” compare unfavorably to the originals. But on the Charles remakes, it’s not so much the arrangements that are a tough sell, but the impossibly high bar Klein and Peyroux have set for themselves. Peyroux deserves credit (and a full auditioning of her previous work, especially 2004’s Careless Love) for sticking with her style and vision, despite endless comparisons to Holiday. But even if you’re not tempted to switch out her CD for the original Modern Sounds, you may well find yourself wondering how fantastic it would have been if Billie had lived to remake Ray’s album herself.
Performance: B; Arrangements: B; Overall: B