You couldn’t find a less likely bluesman if you tried. White, middle-class, Oxbridge educated and fabulously rich, Hugh Laurie isn’t exactly the kind of chap you’d expect to be knocking out 12-bar laments about poverty and deprivation. His musical credentials may be sound, but so far they’ve only been showcased through a bit of vaudevillian ivory-tinkling in A Bit Of Fry & Laurie sketches.
Now he’s bravely taking on the entire musical heritage of New Orleans, possibly the most shat-upon city since Sodom. The question shouldn’t be how he managed to secure a recording contract – his recent TV megastardom can answer that one – but whether this self-effacing, terribly nice Englishman can pull it off without appearing clumsy, insensitive, imperialistic or just plain irrelevant. For what the world does not need is a re-tread of Mark Knopfler‘s cringeworthy Notting Hillbillies side-project.
First up: there’s no denying Laurie’s talent as a pianist and guitarist – or his taste and sensitivity in how to approach his material. The choice of covers here demonstrates not only a fondness for the established jazz and blues standards, but a sense of connoisseurship in sniffing out lesser-known gems. And wisely, he picks songs with universal themes, eschewing tales of oppression and woe mainly in favour of songs about relationship trouble.
The production, too, is spot on – rich and full, without sounding overly modern – and the temptation to slip into pastiche by recreating the reediness of delta blues and trad jazz is sensibly resisted.
Laurie’s own musical heritage and broad tastes are cleverly woven in, too. But for the blue notes, the long piano solo which opens St James Infirmary Blues could be a 19th century classical piece. It’s a knowingly genteel introduction to the album, sweeping neatly into a Dixieland jazz number.
So blues is played as jazz, jazz standards are played as blues, bluegrass is played as soul, and so on. 19th century standard Old Folks At Home is even re-invented as a Cajun / boogie-woogie stomp on Swanee River. Only Robert Johnson‘s They’re Red Hot is played wholly straight, a joint-jumping 72-second palate cleanser.
Aside from the impeccable musicianship, Laurie chooses collaborators judiciously, notably the New Orleans legends Dr John and Irma Thomas. The only truly puzzling guest artist is Tom Jones, whose chest-beating bulgy-veined shtick on Baby Please Make A Change runs wholly contrary to the slick, breezy style of the rest of the album.
Sir Tom aside, the only element likely to divide opinion here is Laurie’s voice. We may have been broken into his American accent via his starring role in House, but nothing could have adequately prepared us for this. His voice of choice here is a midway point between Fats Waller and Bert from Sesame Street. Initially it sounds absurd – but in reality it’s difficult to imagine what kind of accent would have worked any better, and the ear attunes to it soon enough.
No embarrassing side-project, Let Them Talk turns out to showcase heartfelt and sensitively handled musicianship from one of our finest all-round entertainers.