Recording of October 2004: Careless Love

Madeleine Peyroux, vocals, acoustic guitar; Lee Thornburg, trumpet; Dean Parks, guitars; Larry Goldings, piano; David Piltch, bass; Jay Bellerose, drums; Scott Amendola, brushes.
Rounder 11661 3192-2 (CD). 2004. Larry Klein, prod.; Helik Hadar, eng.; Ricky Chao, Nicolas Fournier, asst. engs. AAD. TT: 42:56
Performance ****
Sonics ****

It's the question you have to ask. But when I approached Madeleine Peyroux to ask if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery or if she just naturally sings like Billie Holiday, you'd have thought I had two heads. Horror flashed on her face, followed by disgust and, finally, the ol' unmistakable grimace that says, "Who is this nut?" She was offended, which surprised me. If you sound as much like Billie Holiday as Peyroux does, it's the one question you better have an answer for.

And let us not forget that there are worse things in the world of singing than sounding like Billie Holiday. If you have to pick a mentor and model, Holiday's a wonderful choice.

All of which leads to this record, her second, which she waited eight years to record. Peyroux, then an old soul for her age at 22, burst on the scene in 1996 with Dreamland (Atlantic), a stunning collection of tunes transformed by her floating, sad-toned alto and her incredible gift for offhand, rising-and-falling phrasing, both of which mirror Lady Day in scary ways. Close your eyes, put on the record, and you'll be spooked. If you thought no one could coo out exclamations like "Oh sweet daddy..." quite like Holiday, think again.

After seeing Peyroux perform and listening to both her records repeatedly, I think the answer to "The Question" is a little from column A and a lot from column B. While she's clearly a big Holiday fan and has learned much from that great jazz singer's way with a song, Peyroux's voice and approach are just who she herself is, and what she was born with.

Still, when Careless Love's first track, Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love," kicks in with piano, bass, and brushes, followed by Peyroux's Holiday-like delivery and ragged-edged tone—all recorded the way you wish Holiday had been—it's hard not to think of the young Holiday's glorious Columbia sides of the mid- to late 1930s.

One key to Peyroux's career so far has been that she's stayed clear of any obvious Holiday repertoire. The closest she gets here is the title tune, W.C. Handy's "Careless Love," which is actually a song better known through its performances by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.

What makes Peyroux's work special, Holidayesque or not, is that, in her own offhand way, she's killing the material—making it her own. In a world currently overpopulated by bland, thinly talented, or just plain inconsequential singers, Peyroux's got a vision you can hear.

Careless Love also benefits considerably from having Larry Klein in the producer's chair. Joni Mitchell's ex is responsible for this record's classy arrangements, such as the transformation of Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" from folk love song to light swing tune backed with brushes and organ. Klein's hand is also audible in the record's unfailingly tasteful and relaxed instrumental backing, and its superbly consistent and atmospheric sound. Keyboardist Larry Goldings is particularly charming as he adds accents and often sets the pace, at times on a variety of evocative and exotic instrumental choices like the celesta, the Estey, and the Wurlitzer piano.

To give her credit, Peyroux tries to expand her range on Careless Love and hopefully damp the Holiday doppelganger a bit—hence her very surprising and, I think, successful stab at Dylan. Less engaging but no less adventuresome is her attempt at Hank Williams' "Weary Blues," which for some reason doesn't quite succumb to Peyroux's interpretive verve.

Peyroux (guided, I suspect, by Klein) also has the commercial sense to, in record-label parlance, "give 'em a single." Taking a page from the Norah Jones playbook, she collaborates with Klein and Jesse Harris ("Don't Know Why") on the similarly titled "Don't Wait Too Long," the kind of easy, tuneful pop that could and should receive wide airplay. Like Jones, Peyroux is a pop singer who occasionally veers into jazz.

Born in Georgia but raised in France, Peyroux can convincingly evince an aloof and snooty French attitude, and can sing in French. She does so here to great effect in "J'ai Deux Amours."

Peyroux's talent is considerable and, Holiday tangles aside, real. As proof, a Rush fan on the Stereophile staff, someone who loves loud, near-metal guitars, power drumming, and vocalist Geddy Lee's screech, fell in love with this record. Madeleine Peyroux's dusky, dreamy voice and fanciful way with a song mark her as a singer with something else on her mind than capturing the squealing teenaged girl market. The trick to her continued success and growth as an artist will be to find a way to keep the best parts of the Holiday wraith in her style and sound while also asserting her own trademark character. The laid-back yet very persuasive Careless Love is a sound second step in a career worth watching.—Robert Baird