Lady Sings the (Pop) Tunes
Could it be that, after more than 30 years of honestly and interestingly making a living in the business while skirting the various formal boundaries of musical Americana, Maria Muldaur’s finally settled into a niche?
With her folk and country blues pedigree (Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Skip James), Muldaur’s willing to let it all hang out in a way that Peggy Lee only hinted at (very seductively, I might add).
“The Lies of Handsome Men”, with its late night jazz and knowing (yet dreamy) cynicism, draws clearly from the languid pop tunes that Lee crafted an artistic identity out of (Think the Muldaur-covered “I Don’t Know Enough About You”). Lee’s range was greater than that (e.g., the Lee co-penned “It’s a Good Day”), but it was that image that gave her canon a coherence and purpose (“music for seduction? foreplay?”) that eludes a borderline great but relatively characterless vocalist like Linda Ronstadt. So it is with Muldaur: this album has a mood—both musically and lyrically—even if not all the songs stick with it.
But lest you think that Muldaur’s just channeling Lee to cash in on the recent resurgence of popularity in pre-rock pop, Muldaur’s been flirting with such territory—off and on—for decades. Moreover, she’s not just pantomiming Lee; it’s unlikely you’d mistake one for the other. Rather, she’s channeling the spirit of an admired forerunner in the same way that Elvis dreamed of “feeling” a song as deeply as “old Arthur” Crudup: given the physiological signatures of each singer’s voice, the newer wants to project elements from the personality of the older rather than just hitting the same notes in the same way.
Always sounding earthier than the majority of her contemporaries, Lee could cross over into blues territory—albeit jazz-inflected uptown blues—in a way that, say, Dinah Shore could not. With a number like “Why Don’t You Do Right”, we’re not talking Delta blues, of course, but we’re talking blues nonetheless.
Except that, with Muldaur, we are talking Delta blues.
When Muldaur channels Lee, she brings her own blues background to the table. Just like P. J. Harvey infused Delta blues with the outright sonic thrust of grunge, here Muldaur infuses Lee’s pre-rock pop with the subdued thrust of the Delta. To Lee’s (seemingly) casual intonations and inflections, Muldaur adds the openly muscular vocal chops of a juke joint singer while preserving Lee’s air of simmering sexual tension. Muldaur even sneaks in an old Delta warhorse couplet like, “Put your arms around me, like a circle around the sun / I want you to love me like my easy rider done”. Without busting a lung over it, Muldaur’s a big-voiced woman without many inhibitions: she calls (or whispers) (or moans) them as she sees them and, as of now, she simply hasn’t come. Yet. More credit, then, to her for pulling off the difficult trick of showcasing her own big voice while preserving the essential cool that defines Lee’s sexiness.
It’s an overlap of obsolescent genres that—aside from Etta James’s more pop tunes—has been surprisingly unmined, especially considering how enjoyable the results can be. Sure, pop songs in the Great American Songbook tradition place greater emphasis on the subtlety and wit of the lyrics. And, yes, “The Lies of Handsome Men” is the lead track for a reason. But Muldaur’s Delta stylings have an oomph that most of Lee’s contemporaries didn’t; while the songs don’t have as much wordplay as Arlen/Harburg, they do a better job of getting by on the character of Muldaur’s voice. By the album starting as it does and ending with “The Strongest Stand Alone” and “Every Day’s a New Day”, Muldaur’s is a voice that’s seen love from both sides now. But, unlike the young Joni Mitchell, she’s seen both sides often enough by now to not be enraptured by love’s pseudo-metaphysical vagaries. Instead, she concludes that love—why even bring life into this?—is not bad. Sure, everyone’s heard similar sentiments, just not often this enjoyably. And, when, in the middle of the album, Muldaur talks up the beauty of the moonlight and then suggests you meet her there, you’re not likely to turn her down.