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.