- The Washington Times - Monday, September 26, 2005

If you were born in Georgia, and grew up in Brooklyn and Paris, you’re bound to have a range of eclectic influences. Those were on full display Saturday night at Lisner Auditorium, as Madeleine Peyroux drifted, with an endearing lazy charm, through the songs of her latest album, “Careless Love.”

Much has been made of her unusual voice and its uncanny resemblance to Billie Holiday. It’s grainy, they say. It’s “smoke and whisky,” salty, aching, raspy, behind-the-beat languorous and lingering. It is all those things. But the hardest thing to figure out is whether it’s not just all an act.

In a pale pink dress and a rustic retro guitar cradled in her arms, she was like the Coal Miner’s Daughter channeling Lady Day and other troubled troubadours of the past — but without their mystery or bawdy zest.

Along with other songs, she covered Josephine Baker’s “J’ai Deux Amours,” Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight,” and rather ill-advisedly, Hank Williams’ “Weary Blues.” There’s nothing wrong with going retro — and Miss Peyroux, and her polished backing band, shifted with disarming ease through a number of genres, reminding us that country, gospel, jazz, and even the French chanson are all based on the same few chords.

But if that’s the case, delivery is everything — and fans of Hank might have wondered why his warbly Deep South desperation in “Weary Blues” sounded like a lullaby rendition of “Summertime.” And fans of Patsy Cline might have wondered why “Walking After Midnight” had to have so much arty restraint — including a jazzy bass solo in the middle.

True, California keysman Paul Nagel, swiveling his chair amidst a woodbox organ, an electric piano and the grand, did justice to the material. And, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Scott Amendola — with wispy washing brush strokes through the whole set — skillfully framed Miss Peyroux’s quiet sound. What the act lacks, however, is variety in tempo and volume, an emotional arc. Her pared down austere approach, oozing an almost New Agey spiritual self-satisfaction, can soon wear on the listener.

Miss Peyroux may have found her voice, her God, and her large fan base. But music should not only heal, it should, as the ancients say, also excite the appetites. Along with Norah Jones and Diana Krall, Miss Peyroux has now joined the therapy school of popular jazz. But sometimes you wish they would all stop whispering and healing, and just shout it out.


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