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Music Review: Hugh Laurie – Let Them Talk

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Since my tastes in TV tend to run to The History Channel, most of what I know of the actor Hugh Laurie comes from my wife Barbara, the author of a book about the show House M.D. (Chasing Zebras).  Laurie is clearly a talented actor and comedian.  He’s also written a novel and seems to be a pretty good musician.  So when Barbara invited me to review Laurie’s new album, Let Them Talk, it was pretty difficult to say no – after all, this is the kind of music that I profess to know something about.  I already complain that too few people are interested in these styles of music. 

Laurie’s official website describes the album as “a celebration of New Orleans blues,” but to be fair, his tastes go well beyond this, embracing spirituals (“Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho”), classic American songwriting (“It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “After You’ve Gone,”  “Swanee River”), and traditional folk music (“John Henry”).  The album, produced by Joe Henry (as Laurie states, no relation to John), has a strong supporting lineup: David Piltch on upright bass; Kevin Breit on guitar, dobro, and mandolin; Patrick Warren on organ, Chamberlin and accordion; and Jay Bellerose on drums/percussion. Allen Toussaint, who knows more than a little bit about New Orleans music, directs a nifty horn section.  Backup vocalists include Jean McClain and Gennine Jackson-Francis.

Besides the celebrity status of the lead performer, there are a couple of areas that distinguish this album from similar efforts.  One of the more interesting is that there aren’t a lot of straight leads on instrumental choruses as one would expect.  Instead, the instruments seem to play off each other during the breaks.  I can only speculate on how this approach was chosen, but it’s actually pretty effective.  Another aspect is that they make use of different approaches to give the music more variability.  For example, in “Swanee River,” Laurie begins with a slow, minor key version of the chorus, which then leads into a boogie woogie version of the song.  He then intersperses an uptempo version of the minor key with more boogie (for an interesting comparison, check out Dr. John’s “Swanee River Boogie” on The Great Sounds of New Orleans).  On “Saint James Infirmary,” Laurie begins with a slow, mournful arpeggio-laden introduction that shows off his inventiveness as a soloist.  The rhythm section’s other instruments join in.  It eventually leads into a rhythmic medium-tempo vocal that plays the horn section off Laurie’s piano, finishing with a coda that recalls the opening section.

Another highlight, and a change of pace from the other material, is Blind Blake’s “Police Dog Blues,” featuring some nice guitar picking from Laurie.

Laurie and the horn section also show off their chops on the Professor Longhair classic “Tipitina.”  It’s clear that Laurie has a special affinity for this style.  Fans of the old A Bit of Fry and Laurie TV series (or those who were forced by their spouses to watch) will recall that the theme song was the Professor’s “Mardi Gras in New Orleans.”

Unfortunately, this CD is encumbered by Laurie’s singing.  Sorry, it’s just not very good.  His voice has a somewhat thin, reedy quality that seems to be emphasized by his interpretation of the lyrics.  Vocals work out much better when Laurie turns those duties over to guests Dr. John (“After You’re Gone”), Irma Thomas (“John Henry”), and Sir Tom Jones (“Baby, Please Make a Change”).

So where does this all rank?  Would people be better off to forego this album and look up the original material?  Well, maybe, but most won’t have the patience to wade through the hisses, pops and uneven recordings that most fans of this material put up with.  Also, Let Them Talk has enough twists and turns, both in the material and the arrangements, to make it interesting despite its flaws.  So yes, I think this is an album worth purchasing.

Now, excuse me while I go upstairs and watch The History Channel.

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About Phillip Barnett

Phillip Barnett is a software geek with multiple, conflicting musical fantasies. He has played jazz piano, folk guitar and klezmer clarinet (not all at the same time - that would look ridiculous and would probably hurt his back).
  • Sdemar

    Nice to meet you Phil. I love your wife.

    I would agree with you that Hugh’s voice is the weakest of the CD but I love the CD so much, I can accept that Hugh isn’t perfect at everything.

    I think for his first stab out, it passes the test way more than I thought it would. I would love to see him let loose on the vocals and hopefully he will do this with the next CD.

  • madfashionista

    Unfortunately, my deep love for the blues has prevented me from enjoying Mr. Laurie’s album. I’d much rather find Son House’s “Death Letter Blues” or listen to early Stevie Winwood. Or for that matter, B.B. King at his peak. Mr. Laurie’s singing also bothers me a great deal. I’d rather he stay a musician and leave the vocals to others.

  • madfashionista

    Apologies. I mean find “Death Letter Blues” on YouTube. Amd I’m also a fan of Barbara’s.

  • rbrown205

    If you compare Hugh’s voice with that of Dr. John and Tom Jones, yes, he isn’t as good a singer. But when he puts feeling and inflection into his singing instead of just singing straight, his actor’s instincts come out. A case in point is Billy Bolden’s Blues, another one is The Whale has Swallowed Me. And he seems to really get emotionally into the words of You Don’t Know My Mind when he sings it in concert rather than on the CD.

  • http://shogun555.vacau.com André Gernain

    Ok, so Hugh’s voice ain’t the greatest but neither were a lot of those old guys from the Delta back in the late 1920s. Far as I’m concerned, Hugh is the real deal. The title track alone is worth the price of the CD.

  • jonah griffin

    I dig his voice he did amazing his voice is distinct

  • buckshot10131

    I, while I truly enjoy Hugh’s music and his many talents, can’t help but notice the lack of originality in his music I.E. “LET THEM TALK”. Try kickin back to some” Leon Russell “Leon Russell & The Shelter people.

  • Grammie Cindy

    I love the whole CD and just got to know it very well on a 3000km road trip across the prairies of Canada, Just me & Hugh !!! I have since bought more copies of the CD as gifts. Go Hugh….you are an amazing man !!

  • Ben Harper

    If critics like Barnett had any idea of what it takes to put an album together like this they would have a much greater appreciation for the talent of Laurie and everyone that worked on this record. So easy to sit on your ass and be critical of others. Phillip, try playing and singing just one song and see how you measure up. In fact I tried to find your album on line but jeez, nowhere to be found. Wonder why. Yes indeed, go watch the History Channel. Laurie will carry on just fine with or without your lame comments.

    • http://www.RoseDigitalMarketing.com/ Christopher Rose

      If people like Ben Harper had any idea of of either music or being a critic, they would have a much greater understanding of how lame this album is.

      Get over yourself…