Madeleine Peyroux’s 1996 debut, Dreamland was a disc you might have heard at plenty of hummus-and-pita chit-chat parties set in well-decorated apartments in a nice part of town. It wasn’t jazz, but it was jazz-ish. It might have been a post-modern blend of country and blues and Billie Holiday, or it might have just been a mess. But your smarter friends were spinning it.
Peyroux herself was an enigma. She was 22 but she sounded older. She was born in Athens, GA, but she carried some kind of indirect Parisian sheen. You hadn’t heard of her before, but ... maybe you heard something on NPR about her?
That vaguely half-baked quality is still the dominant feeling on Peyroux’s 2011 effort, Standing on the Rooftop. This record, which it’s fair to call a bit of a mess, was produced by the intriguing Craig Street—the guy who changed Cassandra Wilson for the better on Blue Note a while back. Street is famous for recasting singers in a rootsy blues-‘n’-string-band context, stripping things down and creating lots of atmosphere. He ought to be just the guy to give Peyroux some focus and clarity. But this project is rife with other collaborators as well. Songs were co-written with the jazz violinst Jenny Scheinman—and with Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman. It features mostly original compositions, yet there are idiosyncratic covers of tunes by Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Robert Johnson. There are other guests such as Allen Toussaint, MeShell N’degeocello and Marc Ribot. Peyroux remains, alas, an artist with a stolen vocal style and a generally aimless approach to music. This thing, in short, is all over the place.
It is hardly original to note that Peyroux’s singing is eerily—queerly—reminiscent of Billie Holiday. But on her sixth record over 15 years, this persistent truth can’t be ignored. Peyroux applies an oddly “different” approach to many songs here, but she does it with a recycled sound that is, of course, a faded Xerox of the original. So, when Standing on the Rooftop starts out with “Martha, My Dear”, you’re glad that it does not sound like The Beatles—but were you expecting to hear “silly girl” come out of the throat of Lady Day? And it sounds like a kind of odd Holiday: Billie on Ambien, falling asleep in the middle of “when you find yourself in the thick of it”. It is intimate singing, I suppose, but I think it’s more accurate to call it weak and faltering.
On the two tunes co-written with Scheinman, “The Things I’ve Seen Today” and “Fickle Dove”, Peyroux’s Holiday shtick is very plainly set above spare and haunting guitar-based arrangements. The songs are well-constructed and Street is utterly on his game in creating a spare but compelling setting, but it is distracting as all get-out to listen to Peyroux bend her notes in exactly the places where Holiday would have. I really like these songs, but imagine if you showed up at the theater to watch two favorite Samuel Beckett one-act plays and they were being performed by a Liza Minelli impersonator. For me, that is the effect of Peyroux’s faux-Billie singing on these simple and compelling songs.
The Billie effect works much better on Johnson’s “Love in Vain”, a super-slow reading over a droning organ, guitar and violin sound that masks the tune’s blues structure. Peyroux’s sound blends more fully with the texture here, perhaps, but she seems more like a vehicle for the words themselves. Street builds an intense and complex sound by the end, with percussion clomping in the background and the vocals shimmering with reverb.
Where else does Peyroux sound more contemporary or more like “herself”? Ironically, “The Way of All Things” has a neat little swing rhythm but seems to liberate the singer from sounding so affected. It’s a cool tune that evokes her Parisian background to some extent. Even better is the tune co-written with Wyman, “The Kind You Can’t Afford”. Given a snakey little funk feeling, replete with snatches of wah-guitar, this tune is playful and funny. The lyrics compare the narrator’s low-rent tastes to those of a rich rival (“You got art collections, I got comic books / You use plastic surgeons, I stay the way I look”) but she has “that real good lovin’—the kind you can’t afford”. Peyroux punches the lyrics and talks and sells it all with some natural zing—a huge relief from the vocal posing that dominates the record.
Another choice selection is a song by guitarist Marc Ribot that sets a W.H. Auden poem against acoustic guitar and Toussaint’s piano. This one is stately and chamber-like, a good contrast to the Dylan cover, “I Threw It All Away” (from Nashville Skyline) which puts a little groove into what started as a country song.
What could be variety comes off as grab-bag variation. “Meet Me in Rio” tosses in a bit of pseudo-bossa-nova strutting, while “Standing on the Rooftop” has a pulsing indie-rock plainness. Jazz, folk, country, a touch of funk: all wrapped up in that Billie Holiday imitation. It seems bewildering rather than variegated, aimless rather than genre-bending.
Madeleine Peyroux is an artist literally without her own voice. Borrowing from one source heavily and dabblingly from myriad sources, her Standing on the Rooftop is the sound of nothing so much as hip confusion.