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Music Review: Hugh Laurie – Let Them Talk

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Hugh Laurie is best known for playing the irascible but brilliant Dr. Gregory House on the hit TV show House. But there is another side to the actor, the musical side, revealed occasionally on the show and more so with the group Band From TV. Now Laurie steps into the musical spotlight to offer up his own album of traditional blues entitled Let Them Talk.

Music has always been a driving force in Laurie’s life. At an early age, he fell in love with the blues; those gritty, impassioned songs of Leadbelly, Willy Dixon and Robert Johnson stayed with him and inspired him. With Let Them Talk, he pays tribute to the music he loves, putting his own spin on an album’s worth of old blues songs and, from the sound of it, he had a great time doing so. Making this record may have been one of those bucket-list things he never thought he would get to do. But here he is doing it, and doing it very well.

The album opens with the classic “St. James Infirmary.” Laurie plays a slow, mournful piano intro, which climbs to an almost symphonic crescendo before the band kicks in with a blues groove. It’s not hard to imagine Laurie smirking as he growls over the chunky backdrop, “You won’t find another man like me.” His sinister chuckle hearkens back to Louis Armstrong’s version of the tune.

Laurie’s voice-acting chops come into play on “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” where, like on the Jelly Roll Morton rendition, he sing-speaks the parts of all three characters, imbuing the judge, Frankie and Buddy with their own unique voices. His skillfulness turns the story of the down-and-out Bolden into a surprisingly effective dramatic reading.

The mournful “The Whale Has Swallowed Me,” with its spare acoustic guitar accompaniment, is another chance for Laurie to shine as the lost, frightened narrator. A backdrop of shuddering fiddle and dobro gives the song an even more ominous tone.

The biggest surprise comes when Laurie and company turn the familiar on its ear. “Swanee River” becomes an all-out piano-pounding foot stomper. And the gospel rave up “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” along with the fabulously funky “Tipitina,” are two more welcome respites from the sense of melancholy that prevails on the album.

Tom Jones, Irma Thomas and Laurie’s hero Dr. John, are the record’s musical star power; and as a testament to Laurie’s well documented artistic generosity, each has a track pretty much to themselves. Tom Jones’ “Baby, Please Make a Change,” Irma Thomas’s “John Henry” and “Dr. John’s “After You’ve Gone” are all fine, but seem like they could have been taken from entirely different albums. Although Laurie is the backup singer and pianist on these songs, it would have been more in keeping with the overall feel of the record had he actually sang a chorus or two on his guests’ tracks.

Mention must be made of Joe Henry, whose production is sparse yet fantastically effective; and Allen Toussaint, who constructs some punchy brass arrangements. There are no overdubbed strings, no synthesized keyboards. The band Jay Bellerose (drums), David Piltch (bass), Greg Liesz (guitar, dobro, mandolin), Patrick Warren (keys), and Kevin Briet (guitar, tenor sax, mandolin) make up a tight unit, and Laurie’s wonderful piano stylings complete the musical picture. The record has an intimate, “live in your living room” feel.

“If people can rediscover these [blues] geniuses thanks to me, I’d be happy,” Laurie said in a recent interview. With Let Them Talk, he may just get his wish.

 

Let Them Talk can currently only be ordered from France but will have a wider release on May 9th.

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About Mindy Peterman

  • Olga Parera

    I simply cannot wait for the order to arrive my place and listening to it non-stop. Great review!!

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/mindy-peterman Mindy Peterman

    Thanks, Olga. It is a wonderful record.

  • Sdemar

    The CD is awesome-no doubt about it. He should be very proud of this product.

    I love his spin on Swanee River and if he didn’t tell us it was him playing, you could have mistaken Dr John on the piano for his song. ST James Infirmary is another favorite along with Tipitina.

    This white Brit knows how to play the Blues. Can’t wait for his next CD.

  • marykir

    Mindy, do you have the liner notes? I’m very curious who gets credit for the arrangements.

  • Mindy

    Mary: No, unfortunately, I don’t have the notes. I’m guessing it was a joint effort by Hugh, the band and Joe Henry. But we’ll find out for sure in a couple of weeks.

  • Orange450

    Fantastic review, Mindy!

    Among all the well-deserved eclat surrounding Hugh Laurie’s album debut, I’ve been feeling a bit “out-of-step”. Given that the blues aren’t my first love (or even my second) among musical styles, I’ve felt sort of “grinch-y” about not being as excited as so many of my fellow Hugh Laurie fans. And even though I’m ashamed to admit it – until now, I had no plans to buy the album, even though I did download the teaser track.

    But kudos to you – your thorough analysis and beautifully articulated description of the album contents has whetted my appetite! If Mr. Laurie chalks up another sale of his CD, it’ll have been due to you :)

  • Mindy

    Orange450: Thanks for saying that. Like I said at the end of the review, Mr.Laurie’s intent is to introduce the uninitiated to blues music, as well as paying tribute to it the best way he knows how. He has definitely made it accessible without making it slick.

  • sdemar

    and may I say I can’t wait until I get my 44 page photobook that comes with the Unlimited Edition. I will get a cover with him with the closed eye. Sweet.

  • Martha Lee

    I purchased the album off the French iTunes this past weekend and have been listening to it on and off, the past few days and am enjoying the music. I also purchased the limited edition cd & book off the Official Hugh Laurie Blues site. There are a couple of the songs that I like more then others. Love the upbeat tunes, not so much the downer, death ones. The album is growing on me. Hugh pulls it off with the mix of song selections. The Blues is not a music genre that I go out of my way to listen to, but because of Hugh Laurie and his love of music, and I enjoying watching him play and sing, I have given it a shot. I love when Hugh plays with the Band From Tv. I hope he does another with some original compositions.
    I do agree with you Mindy, on not sure why Dr. John, Irma Thomas and Sir Tom Jones were given lead on songs on the album. All three are great musicians and singers. It would be awesome to hear Hugh sing them, but I guess people will at his European concerts will.
    Hugh is a fantastic musician and this album is a great tribute to his talent. I also like that he is going full tilt on the PR for this album and hope he does the same here in the states once it is released here.

  • Mindy

    Martha Lee: I’m glad you’re enjoying the CD. Like you, I hope the promotion machine will keep rolling on once the CD hits these shores. But since Laurie is signed to Warner UK, I’m not sure if it will. Guess we’ll have to wait and see on that.

  • Martha Lee

    Mindy, I will be real disappointed if the PR does not carry over here to the states.
    I would find it hard that Hugh would blow off the States after all that he has done here, doing House and growing up with New Orleans Blues. Ignoring the US would be a major bummer.

  • Jason

    I never realized that he really did play. I always thought that they were faked it on House.

  • Paul

    Big fan of House here! Great article! keep up the good work!