MUSIC: STIRRINGS FROM MADELEINE PEYROUX

Madeleine Peyroux has a voice of silk and honey with echoes of Billie Holiday that make you catch your breath. She spent a stretch in New Orleans with a band several years ago, and her set at the pre-Katrina Jazz Fest was a showstopper – one to bestir the masses to visit the nearest Starbucks, where her new CD, Half the Perfect World, is a featured item in the world of coffee and cashbox tie-ins. Hey, the gal deserves it. At 32, Peyroux has several CDs behind her; Half the Perfect World is her breakout piece. 

I bought mine in Chicago on Printer’s Row and played it ceaselessly in the rental car across snowy highways through the heartland – the warmth of Peyroux’s singing an antidote to the white glare and harsh winds outside.

He made me laugh,  he made me cry
He smoked his stogies in bed
But I’m all right, I’m all right
I’ve been lonely before

So roll the lyrics of the first cut, “I’m All Right,” for which Peyroux shares writing credit. A whimsical take on getting over the lover who never measured up. Most of us have a certain someone (or more) in the back pages who overtaxed the romance with so much talking that you wanted to dive off a train. Strange song, this one. Driving along those cold Indiana highways, listening to so much sweetness – and the spare arrangement of keyboard-and-strings (no horns honking back to Ms. Madeleine) – I wondered why the gal in the song didn’t get mad at the guy. “I asked the boy for a few kind words/ he gave me a novel instead.” Okay. Then you learn that he fell down and “threw a few of my things around” (maybe the stogies were spiked) and wonder why the girl isn’t worked up instead of singing these dulcet, lissome tones, the sum effect of which is … irony. Perhaps it was the giggle in the last stanza that got to me. All that pain of which she sings and we’re supposed to feel it’s all right because of her voice. The voice is wondrous. I listened to it from Chicago to South Bend and most of the way back again. Nevertheless, the lyrics of that first cut left me wanting a little more in the reality department. Maybe it’s a guy thing. Couldn’t she have at least kicked him in the butt with one line sung about it, softly? 

Born in Athens, Ga., raised in New York and California before moving to Paris as a teenager with her mother, Peyroux got an early launch playing the guitar and street singing as a teenager on the Left Bank. There is a velvet French seasoning to her singing, supple as she stretches the syllables, a crooner with hints of Joni Mitchell and Edith Piaf in a twilight mode. But if you close your eyes and imagine that famous photograph of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday seated in a club, advertising the film, New Orleans, Madeleine Peyroux could be perched on a stool right behind Lady Day.

The songs Peyroux co-wrote with producer Larry Klein and several others, are edgy with bittersweet longings for the real deal.

Good things keep moving along
I’m not looking backward
For something that’s gone
Once in a while I’ll wake up
Wondering why we gave up
But once in a while
Comes and fades away.

Peyroux credits producer Klein as one of “the crazy thinkers, my teachers” – also including Anjani Thomas and Leonard Cohen.

Klein’s class-act production shows in his handling of the Cohen/Thomas composition, “Blue Alert.” A stunning song, the kind to make an artist like Peyroux really stretch. She hits thick chords on the guitar with Sam Yahel’s organ laying out a cool vamp. Imagine her face at a windowpane framed by a darkened surreal cityscape, singing:

There’s perfume burning in the air
Bits of beauty everywhere
Shrapnel flying
Soldiers hit the dirt
She comes so close you feel again
She tells you no
— and no again
Your lip is cut on the edge
Of her pleated skirt —
Blue alert.

I don’t know where they pulled that line about shrapnel and soldiers, but the image is so bracing that you want to hear more.

Peyroux is carving her own groove in a zone somewhere near the moody eroticism of Norah Jones. Jones is a star, but Peyroux’s voice conveys a lot more of life and the heartbreak of living. Here’s hoping we get her back, soon in our post-flooded city, riding more lyrics like those shaped by Leonard Cohen.

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