October 19, 2021

Madeleine Peyroux – Secular Hymns     is intimate and individual

IMPULSE! RECORDS       16th September 2016

On this, her seventh album, twenty years into her career, Madeleine has little to prove. She’s built a career on jazzy singing, delivered with integrity and drawing comparisions with Billie Holliday. There’s none of that jazz-lite nonsense of the Jamie Callum ilk – this is real jazz, made without an eye to condescending to the market. That’s not to say she is in any way inaccessible – the warm voice and choice of arrangements makes this perfect for anyone with a discerning pair of ears. Her song choices are a solid part of the appeal  – from the outset she has covered cool songs in the modern idiom. Here we get Tom Waits’ Tango Till They’re Sore, painted in her own colours, and transformed into a real tango, bowed on the double bass and sung in a consciously unWaits-like way. It’s not the first Waits song she’s covered and she’s also featured compositions by Gainsbourg, Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Fred Neil, Dylan, etc. Here, she puts in a Townes Van Zandt cover, lifting it into a lilt from the straight delivery he gives it, then covers an Allen Toussaint song, stripping it back to a jazzy, funky chamber piece. Unlike her last couple of albums, heavy on her own compositions, this is entirely well-chosen covers.

This album was recorded very fast – as if live, in a church in Oxfordshire – with intimate and resonant acoustics. The small band, a trio, gives her plenty of space and the sound suits the main attraction, Peyroux’s voice. All we get is two guitars (one of them her own) and bass. Her pipes are just right for catching the essence of a song and passing on her interpretation. You know how she feels about a song and you want to pay attention, even though she isn’t showing off, she’s not in your face. It’s a matter of noticing a craftswoman is at working and being caught up in it. It’s never work, it’s a relaxing and warm listen, leaving you with the pictures a good lyric brings and the memory of a minimalist jazz band up close. Does it go without saying that she’s Canadian? There is something about the wide choice of songs, the good taste and eclecticism that makes it no surprise where she’s from.

If The Sea Was Whiskey, an old Willie Dixon blues, has a lovely walking bass and lyrical guitar accompanying her down and dirty voice. Other old bluesers get an outing, like Hello Babe, a twenties good riddance song, sung light and flippant. Did you ever hear a Linton Kwesi Johnson cover? I didn’t. It’s not one of his best but her jazz inflections and a reggae lilt to a small jazz band make this an honest reinterpretation of a great little song – a series of demands for more time for life, out of the rat race. Shout Sister Shout is a jumping jive boogie piece, sung sweet and light. The closer, Trampin, is a heartfelt traditional gospel number, simply setting out a desire for transcendence. And transcendent is nearly the right word to characterise the effect of these interpretations, lifting above genre boundaries into love of a good song and settings that make those songs intimate when Peyroux applies her individual magic.