Over the past month, I've been enjoying Madeleine Peyroux's Half the Perfect World. While the album revels in its sparseness and coolness, it still sounds earnest to these ears. With a repertoire that touches on seminal songwriters (Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits) and an aesthetic drawn from jazz, folk, cabaret and contemporary "singer-songwriter," her third release is her most tasteful yet. Gary Foster takes a beautiful alto sax solo on "The Summer Wind," which is both breezily warm and heartbreaking. Peyroux, Walter Becker and Larry Klein co-wrote "I'm All Right," a bittersweet tune with a touch of optimism for a mending heart. "Blue Alert" is a high point for the album, imbued with a sense of coyness and anticipation as Peyroux gives new depth to Cohen's imagery. Subtle keyboardist Sam Yahel is the accompanist though Larry Goldings also has some notable cameos, having filled the same role on Peyroux's last effort, Careless Love. As with that album, Perfect World uses the combination of guitar and a warm, warbly organ as its foundation, and though the piano fills the spaces only occasionally, it is milked for its clean and airy sustain when it surfaces. Guitar fans might also note Dean Parks's presence; he stands out periodically with some quirkily countrified statements. Peyroux's own Freddie Green-ish strumming, while somewhat simple, is done with confidence, enhancing many of the walking-tempo tunes.
I was also impressed with Peyroux's performance at UCLA's Royce Hall last weekend. With Ron Miles, Michael Kanan, Johannes Weidenmuller and Scott Amendola accompanying her, the group gave a cohesive sampling of Peyroux's tunes and influences. A large part of what makes her singing so provocative (moreso live than on record) is her languorous delivery: usually far behind the beat, flexibly bending into and out of notes. She's not Sarah Vaughan, but simply being comfortable counts for quite a bit; the ease of her performance certainly carried over with her audience, myself included. Furthermore, she seemed to be truly interpreting her songs each time rather than trying to recreate the best moments of the album.
Jazz fans tend to malign Peyroux's sound as a either a Billie Holiday impression, a fashionably marketable "crossover" or a nostalgic cabaret act. As Don Heckman points out in his LA Times review of Peyroux's recent Royce Hall show, none of these is quite correct. Though I dislike belaboring "the Holiday connection," it is an important element of her style. And it is equally important to note she draws from more than this influence alone, and this has become more pronounced since her last two releases. Peyroux's own strength lies in her ability to tell her own story even while reading the words of her heroes.
Her opening act that night, singer and guitarist Julian Coryell, used to busk in Central Park with her. In characterizing her engaging style, he offered quite an understatement: "She would be singing these beautiful songs and people would just keep walking by, which was... weird."
Buy Half the Perfect World. You can hear full-length songs on herSpace and view a video of "I'm All Right" on her website.
Listen to a 2004 interview with Peyroux on NPR's Weekend Edition, and go further back to a 1996 interview on All Things Considered by clicking the link under her picture there.