CD Review of Bare Bones by Madeleine Peyroux
Madeleine Peyroux: Bare Bones
Recommended if you like
Billie Holiday, Anna Nalick,
Ray LaMontagne
Label
Rounder
Madeleine Peyroux:
Bare Bones

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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Y
ou may not know her by name, but you almost certainly know Madeleine Peyroux’s voice; she’s the singer who crooned "Don’t Wait Too Long" in a Dockers ad campaign a few years back – you know, the one you probably thought was Billie Holiday, but is instead a 35-year-old white woman. Like Holiday, Peyroux has earned a reputation for being a little nutty, but her remarkable talent – and penchant for the sort of lonesome melodies and spare, tasteful arrangements that drive the brunch crowd wild – have outweighed her public discomfort with the fame they’ve brought her.

And actually, Peyroux seems to be warming up to the spotlight; her fourth solo release, Bare Bones, is her third in the last five years – impressive for any modern artist, but doubly so for a performer who fled to Paris and busked for eight years instead of following up her critically adored debut. She assembled a stellar group of collaborators for this collection, too; Larry Klein was behind the boards, and Peyroux wrote the material with Walter Becker and Joe Henry, among others, before entering the studio with a band that included Dean Parks, Jim Beard, and Vinnie Colaiuta.

Names you can trust, all of them – with the possible exception of Peyroux, whose co-writing credit on all 11 tracks (with the exception of "I Must Be Saved," which she wrote herself) might serve as cause for alarm for fans who fell in love with her covers of classics like "Walkin’ After Midnight," "La Vie en Rose," "You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," and Hank Williams’ "Weary Blues." Like an actor who really wants to direct, the vocalist who wants to write her own material can be her own worst enemy, and although Peyroux has been known to co-write a track or two (including that Dockers jingle), Bare Bones represents her first foray into entirely original material.

For the most part, it works, although not even Peyroux’s most ardent fans will be quick to suggest Bare Bones is as immediately gratifying as, say, 2004’s Careless Love. As a songwriter, Peyroux is cognizant enough of her strengths to play directly to them, and each of these songs offers a solid backdrop for her smoke-and-honey vocals. They don’t stack up with the songs that made her famous – they really can’t – but a not-insignificant chunk of Peyroux’s audience uses her music as a soundtrack for making omelets and sipping Chablis, and Bones will serve that purpose as well as anything she’s done.

For those who actually pay attention to the songs, this album will present a bit of an artistic step forward for Peyroux. For one thing, she seems to be developing a sense of humor – for example, the opening track, "Instead," cops a Leon Redbone vibe, while the title cut lifts a page from the Randy Newman storyteller’s songbook, and "You Can’t Do Me" crosses an extremely Caucasian reggae beat with tongue-in-cheek lines like "I’ve been screwed like a high school cheerleader." To her credit, Peyroux is smart enough to wash down these new flavors with a heavy dose of the expected; the bulk of Bare Bones is awash with her typically rainy, sultry charm, and those who turn to her albums for fingerpicked guitars and gently sawing violins will find no shortage of them here. The end result is the audio equivalent of an optical illusion – the artist is moving, but if you don’t look carefully enough, she seems to be standing still. It’s a neat trick, and for a performer as pinned down by expectations as Madeleine Peyroux, it may represent the best of both worlds.

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