The misanthropic Dr. House seems fit for music a lot less empathetic than this….something sardonic like Cake would suit him better. As it turns out, Hugh Laurie is much softer and more amenable to such trifles as empathy and disenfranchisement and loves the blues. I didn’t think so. To me, this was simply a curious aside in a career that’s in textbook good health.
The change came about mid-air. While flying home from a vacation, I managed to catch a documentary (Down By The River – watch it) that Laurie filmed while recording this album. Suddenly, that which seemed to me a product of mild-conceit suddenly seemed much, much deeper. Laurie’s love for the blues is far more than skin deep, and hence this tasteful selection of covers.
Because he’s a recording newbie, Laurie’s enlisted some heavy weaponry to articulate his blues dream. Irma Thomas mans (womans?) the duet singer desk while at the production table is Joe Henry. It’s clear, then, that Laurie is implying that the album be judged unsparingly on it’s own merits. And so it shall be.
I’ll start with his piano playing. From the barroom strut of “St. James’s Infirmary” to the dying breaths of the title track, Laurie’s playing has several this-is-really-quite-good moments. “Swanee River” and “Tipitina”, for instance, are grin inducing. However, all is not cloudless, and the occasionally lunk-headed heavier than necessary phrasing causes minor heartburn. You’ll know when you hear it.
When singing, it sometimes seems that Laurie is trying too hard to do an American accent, but even the sometimes strange result sounds musical, with the stubbly Dr. House look (reinforced on the cover) dovetailing nicely with his soulful, lugubrious voice. The lovely clippy Oxbridge is nice in and of itself, but since the fiction here is of an American accent, it’s a bit jarring, like on “Six Cold Feet”. He also happens to be out of his depth in songs that rely on melisma and sustain. He’s no Howlin’ Wolf, and its usually the tunes themselves and the able backing band that ferry the songs beyond the ordinary. A little more croaking and hoarse whispering would sound excellent.
Laurie’s playing has several this-is-really-quite-good moments
The biggest compliment I can give this album is that it’s not an embarrassing teenage fantasy fulfilled for a middle-aged man. This is a proper album, with proper musicians. In fact, Laurie’s piano playing is arguably better than his singing. This authenticity comes to the fore in the ebullient, celebratory sounds of “Swanee River”. The piano doesn’t have an accent.
My favorite track would be the irresistibly upbeat “Tipitina”, which as the documentary says, has special resonance for Laurie. It’s a great choice too. The apparently nonsensical scatting provides the biggest emotional wave of the album, which then thrillingly recedes in the moments immediately afterwards. At this point I felt a bit of a prole when I realized that “Tipitina” reminded me of, uh, the Will and Grace theme tune. Further reinforcement of ignorance came shortly afterwards upon realizing that “They’re Red Hot” is a blues standard and not in fact a Red Hot Chili Peppers original.
Fundamentally, this is a good album. Laurie’s musical talent is obvious, and it’d be a real disappointment if he stopped at just this one release. It’d be even more of a disappointment if he doesn’t come out with some original material next. I’d like to see him put his compositions to the test. This sounds right.
– El Bajista