Music Review: Peyroux takes step forward

6/29/2009

By Steve Morley
UMC.org

Madeleine Peyroux
Bare Bones
Sound/Style:
Introspective, jazz- and modern folk-influenced blend

While still in her early 20s, American-born singer Madeleine Peyroux was turning the heads of jazz aficionados with her vocal resemblance to the legendary Billie Holiday.

Peyroux likely wouldn’t have gotten much mileage out of her ability to emulate Holiday, though, had it not been for the emotional substance in her dusky vocals. The audible fragility and melancholy in her voice suited the eclectic cabaret blend of jazz, blues, folk and occasional originals on her first three albums. On her latest, Bare Bones, she graduates from an interpreter to a full-fledged singer-songwriter.

It’s a brave move, and one that results in a more personal listening experience, though arguably a more challenging one as well. Limiting the projection of her voice to only what is necessary, Peyroux traces out a sketchy emotional arc of grief, struggle and eventual emergence from their grasp.

Instead, a jaunty retro-jazz shuffle offers a light and encouraging moment at the album’s outset, before depositing the listener at the corner of bitter and sweet. Muted by her low-key delivery, even it betrays the knowing tone of one arriving at happier possibilities from the dark end of a well-traveled tunnel. She’s chillingly introspective on tracks like Love and Treachery and River of Tears, the latter a look at the trickle-down effects of familial alcoholism. Peyroux implicates her now-deceased father as the seed of her own dysfunction in the track that follows.

In the album’s larger context, these tracks are perhaps not as dour as they might seem. Not only do they serve as catharsis, but also as plainspoken examples of human foibles. Peyroux finds a similar but less weighty effect on To Love You All Over Again, which seeks to salvage the pleasurable remnants of a less-than-ideal liaison, and the airy waltz Homeless Happiness, about the freedom of abandoning material-based goals.

Her title track, Bare Bones is the thematic linchpin for an album that employs minimalism in both emotion and musical setting.

Somethin’ Grand employs ambivalence to near perfection as it equally embodies ache and acceptance with its hushed, partly hummed vocal and the wistful violin that ushers out the track and the album. It requires a shift in attitude and expectation to embrace music that avoids easy black-and-white conclusions or Technicolor earnest in search of variegated grays and earth tones. But in those moments when the subtle glow of inner change reveals itself amidst the austerity of Bare Bones, the sensitive and patient listener may be glad for the fact there’s nothing in its way.