When actors (especially those with a Capital A) wake up one morning and decide that their multimillion-dollar onscreen careers would be worthless without a hit pop single, the results tend to lean toward being both disappointing and predictable (ditto for athletes who insist on scratching the same type of itch). That’s not to say the equation doesn’t go both ways, of course—try as he may, it’s still tough to watch Justin Timberlake moonwalk his way from stages to screens. It’s just to say that for whatever indecipherable reasons, the most prominent formula within this niche usually goes like this: 1) Actor turns to music. 2) Music career isn’t as successful as acting career. 3) Actor returns his attention to that Bill and Ted reboot.
It’s with a fair amount of trepidation and skepticism, then, that actor Hugh Laurie’s second full-length Warner Bros. release, Didn’t It Rain, must be considered, right? Well, no.
See, if there was anything 2011’s Let Them Talk proved, it was that the guy has an exquisite taste in music, all Arthur Christmas jokes be damned. Dude clearly likes his rhythm and soul, and in a rare case of crossover achievement, Laurie has actually managed to do something useful with his star power by offering up these unexpectedly advantageous interpretations of some pretty great tunes. More so, he is smart enough to loom in the background for much of the record, offering solo vocals on less than half the collection, deciding instead to allow the rest of his excellent group, the Copper Bottom Band, take center stage. Combine that with a slew of welcomed, credible guest spots and what you have is a remedy to the Actor-Meets-Music Syndrome of which even Dr. Gregory House would be proud.
Case in point: The Taj Mahal collaboration, “Vicksburg Blues”, a fantastically moody trip through Mississippi cotton fields that picks up during its bridge as Laurie establishes himself as a more-than-adequate piano player. Originally written by Little Brother Montgomery, it has all the rootsy elements any traditionalist might want, complete with a subtle backing harp that echoes the essence of where it all began. Guatemalan artist Gaby Moreno then shows up to help out with Kansas Joe McCoy’s retooling of “The Weed Smoker’s Dream” for an inescapably lazy four minutes and 17 seconds that would be best suited for a New Orleans jazz club sometime between the years 1952 and 1959. Moreno’s voice is mesmerizing while the woodwinds behind it blow smoke in any listener’s face, combining for a deliciously authentic throwback that makes anybody with a pulse long for days currently too far gone.
Better yet is how much weight the Copper Bottoms are willing to pull. Pepper MaShay (real name: Jean McClain) works wonders with her sultry, rough croon, best seen on “I Hate a Man Like You”, “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair” and the album-opening “The St. Louis Blues”, where she’s briefly joined by a willing and able Laurie on the mic. All three tracks pick and choose which elements of ragtime it wishes to use, and all three tracks prove successful because of it. “Hate” and “Chair”, in particular, slow things down enough to make her imperfect voice the perfect choice for the desolate, bayou scene that these songs paint. Hell, even the maestro trades in his cane for a gavel on the latter, echoing the playful nature that makes the entire collection the exact amount of flippant it needs to be in order to work.
Actually, there’s an undertone of lighthearted satisfaction that weaves its way through the duration of Didn’t It Rain, allowing it to be interpreted less as a vanity project and more as a fan-boy-paying-homage kind of set that just so happens to come from a celebrated actor. Even the consummate optimistically sad classic “One for My Baby” gets a tone-perfect treatment. Essentially stripped down to keys, sax and brushes, you can hear half a grin spread across Laurie’s face as he utters “I know the routine / Put another dollar / In the machine.” It’s not not sorrowful, but it’s also not a Leonard Cohen poetry reading, either.
Dr. John’s “Wild Honey” gets a decidedly soft makeover (though to be fair, it’s hard for anybody to be as funky as the doctor can be), and while some may criticize the tune’s lack of climax, there’s something to be said for Laurie’s Bruce Hornsby-like feel that is accentuated more here than elsewhere on the record. It’s not perfect, sure, but any Dr. John is good Dr. John, no? “Junkers Blues” is an odd twist, too, as the TV star channels Champion Jack Dupree’s drug-obsessed mantra (by way of Willie Hall, it should be noted) to varying degrees of success. Hearing Laurie emphasize the word “reefer” as the chorus winds down is weirdly unsettling, though the gospel-soaked performance evens things out, proving yet again that the slide guitar can cure all things (except for lupus, of course).
Truth be told, “even” is probably the best word to describe Didn’t It Rain. Laurie’s penchant for New Orleans-influenced soul music makes this set authentic, not a mere money grab for someone who’s finished his most successful job and is currently looking for work. It’s hard to pull off this kind of stuff successfully, anyway, but it’s even harder when you have to battle the preconceptions that come with initially making your bones as an actor. Hugh Laurie overcomes all those obstacles with a collection that doesn’t reach too far beyond what it wants to do (and for that type of self-awareness alone the whole thing should be lauded). There’s no real gimmick. There’s no real ulterior motive. There’s no real reason to complain.
Didn’t It Rain is just a guy surrounded by some talented friends making some music they know they would enjoy listening to. And in such a currently impatient world that has allowed the entertainment industry to make millionaires out of people who have no obvious discernible talent, what’s so wrong about that? Besides, it’s not like Hugh Laurie is lacking the ability to pull these things off with success. Need proof? These 13 songs should be all anyone could ask for.
// Notes from the Road
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