For somebody with such an apparently tortured public image, Madeleine Peyroux certainly sounds relaxed. Whereas her every TV appearance is conducted with the air of one who’d rather be cutting her toenails with a rusty scythe, and intervals between albums are punctuated with mysterious disappearances, every note of Half The Perfect World oozes an effortless, languid charm.
The jazz singer’s third album follows the template laid down by its predecessors, Dreamland and Careless Love, by being an unstintingly classy collection of mostly cover versions, although this time Peyroux has contributed four songs of her own, co-written with producer Larry Klein.
The original material is excellent, but it’s those covers that will mostly attract people’s attention. Although maybe ‘cover version’ isn’t really the right word – Peyroux is really a reinterpreter of songs, putting her own spin on most of the numbers here and often making them her own. They’re split between standards that most people will recognise and some rather more obscure material.
Perhaps the best cover here is the duet with kd lang of Joni Mitchell‘s River. Peyroux and lang’s voices work so well together it’s almost impossible to tell who’s singing which line. Of course, with a classic like River it would be very hard to screw up anyway, but both singers perfectly capture the original’s heartbreaking poignancy quite beautifully.
Elsewhere, perhaps Fred Neil‘s Everybody’s Talkin’ has been covered too many times for it to have any fresh impact, but Peyroux makes a reasonable enough fist of it here. Better though are the two Leonard Cohen tracks, Blue Alert and the title track. Both are lovely, especially the former, a flirty, sexy number with some typically Cohen-eaque dry wit (“You even touch yourself/You’re such a flirt”) belying his gloomy image. The fact that Peyroux sounds more like Billie Holiday than ever also helps.
Former Steely Dan man Walter Becker contributes to one of the original songs, the opening I’m All Right, an upbeat tale of love gone wrong which even sees Peyroux bursting into laughter near the track’s end. Even better is the beautiful Once In A While, a bittersweet tale of lost love (“I’m not looking backwards for something that’s gone” runs the song’s key line).
One of Peyroux’s major talents is to take somebody’s else’s song and turn it inside out without alienating fans of the original. Tom Waits‘ Looking For The Heart Of Saturday Night is turned from an earthy blues song to a rather more tranquil country number, complete with pedal steel guitar. Whereas Waits’ heart of Saturday night seemed to be the nearest bar, you get the impression that Peyroux is searching for something a little more long-lasting. Retaining the ache and optimism of the original, it’s a wonderful rendition.
Serge Gainsbourg‘s La Javanaise is sung in French as perfectly as you’d expect a former native of Paris to sing it, while the old standard Smile (written by Charlie Chaplin of course) ends the album on a nicely upbeat, if still melancholic, note.
It could be accused of being almost too tasteful at times, and you can certainly see all those people looking for dinner party music rushing to buy it. Yet that shouldn’t detract from the fact that Peyroux is a wonderful singer and this collection of songs is her best yet.