Madeleine Peyroux’s fourth album marks a change in direction for the famously reclusive French-American singer. Not in any musical sense – the lazy swing, brushed drums and reassuring plod of the double bass are all still intact – but rather in the material contained within.
Peyroux has, up till now, been known for her cover versions. Indeed, she made her name with a rendition of Bob Dylan‘s You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, and her albums to date have seen her winsomely reinterpreting old standards by the likes of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.
For Bare Bones, all the material has been written by Peyroux herself, either on her own or with a series of collobarators including Steely Dan‘s Walter Becker and her long-term producer Larry Klein. The results, perhaps predictably, are a bit mixed, but it should confirm that there’s a lot more to Peyroux than being a conduit for other people’s songs.
Much of that is down to her wonderful voice. She’s a delight to listen to, whether it be her phrasing on You Can’t Do Me, skipping along merrily on the upbeat opener Instead or encapsulating loneliness and heartbreak on Damn The Circumstances. It’s a well-worn cliche that a good singer could make the recitation of the telephone book appealing, but you believe it to be true with Peyroux.
She’s at her best when contemplating relationship failures. Two of the best tracks here are break-up songs; the magnificent River Of Tears and the standout Love And Treachery, which sends shivers down the spine. The latter even brings Cohen to mind in its almost sinister sense of foreboding – unsurprisingly, given the impact that the Canadian has had upon her career so far.
Although the darker moments work best, she can carry off a lighter touch just as well on You Can’t Do Me, a Becker collaboration featuring an infectious piano riff and risque lines such as “I’d be screwed like a high school cheerleader, tattooed like a Popeye sailorman”. Again, it’s Peyroux’s near faultless delivery that raises the track to a whole new level.
The only problem with Bare Bones is that it all sounds a bit too perfect. It’s perfectly played, produced and sung, with makes it a comforting, easy listen. Which is all well and good – but while nobody is looking for raw experimentation from a Madeleine Peyroux album, you do sometimes long for some grit and dirt amongst the polish.
It means that the second half of the album in particular suffers a bit, being bogged down in too many mid-paced, languid ballads that all become a bit similar sounding. Still, even when the quality control of the material dips a bit, there’s still Peyroux’s wondrous voice to marvel at.
So often accused of being nothing more than a Billie Holiday impersonator, Bare Bones shows that Madeleine Peyroux is developing her own voice rather nicely.