"House" shares his musical true love
I became a Hugh Laurie fan through British comedy. Even though his occasional musical numbers during A Bit of Fry and Laurie showed off his talent, his wit was always central. Part of the pleasure of watching Laurie in House is the cognitive dissonance of seeing him play a dramatic American, but this probably laid the groundwork to appreciate his work on Let Them Talk.
Rootsy tribute albums like Let Them Talk succeed or fail on the abilities of the artist. John Doe and Sadies' Country Club showed their love of classic country and they had the skill to sell the songs and give them relevance. On the other hand, Elvis Costello's attempt, Almost Blue, largely missed the mark. Hugh Laurie takes his shot at classic blues and jazz and largely succeeds, in part because of the solid musical help he brought along to the project.
As St. James Infirmary started with a solo piano, it seemed like a repositioning of the tune, especially when the cadenza built into a heavy weight, almost classical treatment. Laurie shifted to a straighter bluesy piano style, though and worked his way through the changes. The arrangement turned out impressively. The song runs through as an instrumental, taking it to conclusion. Then, the walking bass rises from fading piano to start the song over again, this time as a moodier jazz arrangement with vocals. The shift to a fuller sound -- horns, slide guitar, etc - supports the vocals nicely.
Laurie's voice is the only weak link. He holds a tune fairly well, but his vocals are strained and a little tight. With Fry and Laurie, he'd often affect a singing style to match the song and that sense of affectation permeates Let Them Talk. When guest singers step in, like Dr. John on After You're Gone, there's a fluidity that Laurie misses. That said, his love of the material shines through the project and his playing is superb.
One of my favorite tracks was the Professor Longhair classic, Tipitina. Laurie's piano intro is has some tasteful fills, but the song hits its stride when the funky groove gets underway. The instrument arrangement is loose, allowing for a mix of interaction between the players in the midst of the bluesy, New Orleans style chaos. Laurie's vocals are more relaxed here than some of the other tracks and the emphasis is more on the music anyway.
Another pleasant surprise was Tom Jones' soulful singing on Baby, Please Make a Change. Powerful and emotional, Jones' testifies over the gaunt arrangement. A mournful fiddle vies with a clarinet and slide guitar for "best solo" bragging rights. The shuffle picks up tempo to drive the song to its righteous conclusion. Amen.
Let Them Talk meshes nicely with Hugh Laurie's recent Great Performances appearance on PBS. In addition to sharing music from the album and some live sets, Laurie had the chance to talk about his discovery of the blues. The show and the album demonstrate the passion he brings to this music.