When Hugh Laurie began his foray into American blues a couple of years ago, many an eyebrow was raised. He clearly wasn’t doing it for the money (as his time on House came to an end he was the highest paid actor on television, trousering a six-figure sum per episode), so what was the point? Quite simply, because he could and, if it failed, his career would not be wrecked.
As it happened, Let Them Talk was a surprise hit for both critics and fans alike and the success of that album has paved the way for a follow-up, Didn’t It Rain, featuring more interpretations of blues standards from the likes of WC Handy and Jelly Roll Morton among many others.
But in the first half, something is a little amiss; something that’s initially difficult to pin down. The St Louis Blues has a lengthy instrumental that’s filled with mood and tension before finally kicking into life, making for a curious beginning. Then there’s Junkers Blues; and there’s something rather odd about the idea of a man of Laurie’s background singing a song revolving around this self-evident subject matter. There follows a bit of a wait until we finally get to a song that has an infectious sense of excitement – the bustling Wild Honey. That’s then juxtaposed with Send Me To The ‘Lectric Chair, which goes from very sparse beginnings to a full-blooded stomp.
It becomes apparent during this inconsistent half-hour what the two main problems are. Firstly, there’s a fair bit of filler. Secondly, it seems like the album is more concerned with spotlighting Laurie’s guest vocalists (including Gaby Moreno and Jean McClain) than the main attraction. Their performances are never less than good, as is only to be expected, but they’re of less interest than Laurie’s.
It may well be because he’s spent the best part of a decade playing an American doctor, but Laurie’s heavily-accented vocals are pretty good. It’s not news that he can sing (A Bit Of Fry And Laurie‘s songs were amongst that series’ highlights) but the album underlines how well he can adapt his voice to the chosen material.
The second half is an improvement of sorts. Careless Love sees him in full-on sweeping ballad mode. The hushed backing harmonies give it a gospel feel and there are a couple of solos that could only be described as ‘wailing’, thankfully to good effect. His vocals are even better on One For My Baby, which will be the most familiar song on the album to the majority of listeners. On the downside, Evenin’ is almost too relaxed – almost as if it is merely going through the motions – whilst I Hate A Man Like You is pretty forgettable.
There is no doubt that Laurie has real passion for this classic period of music and when he’s on form it shows in a way that is easy to catch on to. However, there’s no getting around the fact that this is an indulgence, especially at nearly an hour long. Whilst there are occasional high points, it’s best to cherry-pick the highlights from Didn’t It Rain and leave the rest.