“Drink up, baby. Stay up all night.” With those words, borrowed from the inimitable Elliott Smith, Madeleine Peyroux crooned her way into the hearts of many a soft-hearted indie über-geek. I would know; I am one of them. As an Elliott Smith fan, I was wary of any and all covers of his material, but Peyroux turned those world-weary lyrics into late night lounge noir, putting an entirely new spin on a modern classic. The song was on her third album, Careless Love, in which Peyroux half-eschewed the more traditional jazz standards of her previous albums in favor of a few more songs that showed a wider range of tastes. Therefore, songs by Elliott Smith, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan acted as gateways to the woman called the Billie Holiday of our times. As Careless Love had only one original, a song co-written with Jesse Harris, fans found themselves brainstorming the most likely dream pairings of retro voice with modern classic. But with the appropriately titled, Half the Perfect World, Peyroux delved deeper into her own songwriting by presenting four of her own compositions. It was only a matter of time before the amazingly talented chanteuse released an album consisting entirely of originals, and that time has come.
There’s nary a cover to be found on Bare Bones, yet I’m sure the casual listener could be easily fooled into believing it’s nothing but. This is mainly the result of Peyroux and her collaborators evoking a timeless quality in each one of the eleven newly penned tracks. Julian Coryell, most recently known for being a guitarist for both Aimee Mann and husband Michael Penn, co-writes two tracks, both of which are the most Billie Holiday-flavored / Careless Love evoking songs of the bunch. Those two, the opener, “Instead,” and later track, “Homeless Happiness,” sound as if they belong on a soundtrack for a Woody Allen film. I can picture these songs playing over credits in Windsor font.
Larry Klein, as longtime producer of Peyroux’s albums, has his hand in every one of these songs, but his presence is more pronounced in “River of Tears.” It’s the only song in which Klein is Peyroux’s sole collaborator, and as such, powerfully resembles work from Klein’s ex-wife, Joni Mitchell. More precisely, “River of Tears” sounds an awful lot like Mitchell’s later work with Klein, the smoky barroom lounge flavored feel of the re-recorded “Both Sides Now” or “A Case of You.” In fact, if you were to look at the cover of Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if you would see an image of Peyroux by panning slightly right.
Guest Joe Henry manages to help Peyroux channel Leonard Cohen without plagiarizing on “Love and Treachery,” but Peyroux’s most interesting collaboration comes with one half of Steely Dan’s power duo, Walter Becker. One could easily pick out Becker’s contributions. His signature laid-back jazz guitar style is obvious on the title track and the exquisite “You Can’t Do Me.” Yet what stand out even further than his musical stamp are his witty left-of-center lyrics. The latter track alone has enough incredible imagery to keep listeners and critics twittering for weeks; one example being, “Spitooned like an Alabama `backy wad / harpooned in a Melville sailor yard / cartooned like a Charlie Brown Christmas card.” And just like that, Peyroux proves there’s more to her CV than comparisons to ’30s era blues and jazz singers.
Bare Bones, despite of and yet also due to its lack of standards and covers, is a sure-fire winner for both longtime fans of gorgeous jazz vocal artistry and those who hopped on board with Peyroux’s stealthy sneak into the back door of indie cool. Ultimately, the centerpiece of the album is not hinged on collaboration, but instead with Peyroux’s incredible voice. It is not only her ability to fit into any style, but also her ability to be herself, as found on the one track she penned all by her lonesome, the miraculous “I Will Be Saved.” With that one track, Peyroux takes a step closer to complete independence. And maybe someday soon we’ll have a full album of Peyroux’s own words and music to fit that dusky, seductive and charming voice we’ve all come to love listening to on a beautiful and relaxing Sunday morning.
Joni Mitchell- Both Sides Now
Billie Holiday- Stay With Me
Diana Krall- The Girl in the Other Room