Most critics cite Tony Bennett’s rendition of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” as the first time country-western music and popular jazz met together on smooth ground during the postwar era. A decade later Ray Charles took it a giant step further on Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music. This album today is considered one of the greatest and most influential records of all time. The music made a tremendous impact on present day producer Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock). Klein wanted to recreate Modern Sounds and brought the idea to jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux.
This does not make sense as Charles and Peyroux are very different types of singers. Charles had an earthy voice whose R&B inflections endowed the country sounds with grit. He layered his vocals over big band jazz instrumentation that mellowed the sound with the help of horns, a string section and a gospel-tinged choir. Peyroux has a light and airy voice often equated with urban and urbane sophistication. She and Charles occupy polar positions on the non-jazz aspects of their musical traditions.
That is why this album works so well. If Klein wanted to recreate Modern Sounds, there are many other artists whose voices more resemble Charles’ rough hewn tones. The point was more to reinvent it. That’s why the two used material from Charles’ original album and other songs that were not. The split is about 50/50. Klein keeps everything velvety soft, but the mix of old and new keeps the The Blue Room sounding fresh.
Peyroux’s renditions of songs Charles recorded back in 1962 include a sultry “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, a tearful “Born to Lose” and an ethereal “You Don’ Know Me”. She opens the songs and lets them breathe. This reveals the emotional essence of the country material. When Peyroux croons about being “afraid and shy / I let my chance go by / the chance that you might love me too,” her introverted nature comes across through her prayer like intonations. She’s tender and bashful, not coy. She doesn’t wink.
The newer tunes include a tender version of John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind”, an intoxicating take on Randy Newman’s “Guilty” and a moody interpretation of Warren Zevon’s “Desperadoes Under the Eaves”. While it is somewhat of a stretch to imagine the refined Peyroux as a hobo drinking out of cisterns at train stations, she never breaks character. She more successfully turns the narrator of Zevon’s apocalyptic conceit into a more fully-fleshed out human being, one whose self-pity transforms everything she sees. “Don’t the sun look angry through the trees / Don’t the trees look like crucified thieves,” Peyroux wearily notes. The hills of Los Angeles have never been more drearily conveyed, which suggests one person’s paradise is another one’s hell.
Unlike Bennett and Charles, Peyroux’s countrypolitan effort does not break new ground. Her antecedents committed revolutionary acts with social, political, and cultural implications. In contrast, Peyroux takes no risks here. The cultural impact may be slight, but the music itself is quite gorgeous. She and Klein were wise to take the opportunity to transplant the heart of Modern Sounds into a more contemporary setting. Ezra Pound famously proclaimed the motto of Modernism to be “Make it New”. Peyroux has done so with excellent results.