Friday, July 3, 2009
That Thing You Do
Madeleine Peyroux appeared recently in Boston and received a horrible review in the newspaper. Since I'm a fan and own all her CDs, my initial response was concern for her. "How could a critic be so cruel?" I thought. And yet, after reading comments to the story and being honest with myself about her music, I must admit that I admire his honesty, and I agree that she has a fundamental problem.
The reviewer noted how the audience started leaving long before the concert was over. I must admit, that when I listen to her, I often leave mentally about a quarter or half way into the song. Her sound is pleasant and inviting at first, but the spell is soon broken. What could be the problem?
Let's begin with her song selection which, until 2009's Barebones, was always sprinkled with standards, be they from The Great American Songbook ("The Summer Wind"; "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter"; "Smile") or songs famously associated with other singers ("La Vie en Rose" (Piaf); "Lonesome Road"(Sinatra); "Everybody's Talkin'" (Nilsson); "(Looking for) The Heart of a Saturday Night" (Waits); "Walkin' After Midnight" (Cline); "(Getting Some) Fun Out of Life" (Holiday); "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" (Dylan); "Dance Me to the End of Love", "Blue Alert", "Half the Perfect World" (Cohen).
Before rock, it was customary for singers to have songs made popular by other people in your repetoire. Much of my music listening is involved in analyzing how different singers handle the same song. I'm searching for singers who have a trademark style, and yet are not entrapped by it. The great ones always make you ask as you look over the song list, "Well, I wonder what they'll do with this song?"
The answer with Madeleine Peyroux is: "absolutely nothing." Her renditions of these songs on her CDs are respectful, so much so that you're stunned by how she as an artist didn't feel it necessary to make them her own. Just because they're great songs is not a valid enough reason to perform them. (When she does perform them, she's less respectful, improvising in a directionless way. Listen to how she butchers "Smile".)
In a review written in a Boston alternative newspaper after her last appearance in Boston, Jon Garelick wrote, "When she sang a slow ballad like Fred Neil's 'Everybody's Talkin' or Charlie Chaplin's 'Smile', her phrasing fell apart...there was a mile between syllables, and nothing connecting them. Sometimes her pitch was off, or her voice thinned out to unsupported strings of notes. Was it a failure of technique, or a failure of commitment, as if she hadn't made up her mind which note to hit or when?" Excellent question! I suspect the answer is a little of both--she wants to break from sounding just like Billie Holiday, but she lacks an alternate technique. As a consequence, she gets into trouble, and lands on notes she never should have.
How do you "make a song your own" anyway? Now there's a challenge that encounters every singer and arranger. Acquiring a style, getting your listeners to attend to your words--oh, it's a tough business, and it's a mysterious process. Nothing that can be taught directly, I suspect. You need a great song, of course, but so much depends on the delivery of it.
One young singer definitely acquiring a style is Melody Gardot, a cohort of Peyroux's in the female adult music class. I'm very excited about her talent as a singer and a songwriter. Before I discuss her skill, though, just give a listen to how she renders "Over the Rainbow". Listen for how she puts her own stamp on this well-worn classic.
There's no doubt that Gardot attacked "Over the Rainbow" by asking herself, "OK, what can I do to this song to make my listeners think 'Oh, this is different, but I like it. In fact, I love it, because I'm tired of hearing it sung the same way all the time." It's a triumph for her. You marvel at her phrasing, and of the decision to cast the song in one of Gardot's favorite styles (bossa-nova).
Gardot has an incredible ear and intelligence. "She has a knack for the melodramatic but also for a kind of minimalism," writes Nate Chinen in The New York Times in a review of My One and Only Thrill, her latest release, "she knows the power of modest gestures and meaningful inflections."
Sure, Gardot's voice does sound like she may have listened too much to Julie London or Blossom Dearie, but she gets beyond the similarity and carves out a singular style due to her phrasing and--most importantly--the fact that almost all of her material is written by herself. What's terrific about her songs are that they're obviously crafted to possibly fit into the Great American Songbook. She has truly studied her writers! On Thrill, it's clear that she's delighted with "If The Stars Were Mine", and rightfully so. (The song is featured twice on the tracks!) It's upbeat, bright, and resonates with songs of yore in its celebration of being in love.
Other standouts include the "Fever"-like drive of "Who Will Comfort Me", the beautiful longing of "Lover Undercover", and the wistful "Deep Within the Corners of My Mind".
Madeleine Peyroux would only occasionally write songs on her albums, with mixed results. Her best written song was probably
"Don't Wait Too Long" from 2006's Half the Perfect World. "It's Alright" from her previous release was pretty good too. With her new release, she's gone into songwriting full throttle. No more standards. Just unadulterated Madeleine.
Peyroux favors the confessional approach in her songwriting. The title track on Barebones and several other songs concern her alchoholic father who died several years ago, around the time she returned to the music business after an eight-year hiatus. Here's how she saluted her father in her 2004 release: "(To) Mom, for everything, Dad, for our time together.")
It's clear that she's haunted by her father's depression. The opening song ("Instead") is an attempt to meet her own depression head-on. It's a light, lilting number that gets the CD off to a good start.
But then Peyroux seems to get grounded on the shoals of her own melancholy. She has a curiously sedate way of delivering lyrics about her father like "Watch me rage down this river of tears"; if there's anger there, a listener never hears it.
The biography on her website discusses the humor in her songs, but honestly, I couldn't detect much. When she writes well it's usually in a song that runs counterpoint to the mood created by the tone of her voice. (I'm referring to "You Can't Do Me", a bouncy number distinguished by its stream of similes such as "blewed like a Mississippi sharecropper, screwed like a high-school cheerleader (!)".
Her songwriting fails to consistently hit the mark, but at least Barebones marks a first attempt to shape a style and world view. I am sure that Larry Klein, who produces both Peyroux and Gardot, must be struck by the difference in these singers. He is infamous as Joni Mitchell's ex-husband and producer of her work in the 1980s and early '90s. (I especially liked his work on Turbulent Indigo, which gave a Grammy to Joni and a divorce to him.)
Gardot's first two releases are on the famous jazz label Verve, and she's a perfect fit. Her future looks extremely bright. Peyroux records on the Rounder label, and she may need a change of scenery. (They're more roots-oriented, and less hospitable to a purely singer-songwriter approach.)
Perhaps Larry Klein will back her up with a string-based soundscape on her next release, as he did for Gardot. In terms of what she sings, well, that's a big question. I would continue her to steer her completely away from the standards and encourage who to continue to record upbeat, playful material.
Right now, I suspect she's in a bit of a crisis in terms of direction, so it will be interesting to watch how it all turns out.