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.