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Music | POP MUSIC REVIEW

A vintage sound all her own

Madeleine Peyroux boldly blends genres and eras. A little Billie Holiday, anyone?

June 27, 2005|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

If Madeleine Peyroux had left the naming of her current album to her record label's marketing team, they might have come up with something like "File Under Norah Jones." It wouldn't have been the most sensitive of moves, but it would have certainly cut to the chase in trying to attract a wider audience.

On the Rounder album "Careless Love," Peyroux exhibits much of the same exquisite taste and understated command that has helped Jones sell nearly 15 million albums in the U.S. alone in just three years. One track on Peyroux's CD was even co-written by Jesse Harris, who penned Jones' signature hit, "Don't Know Why."

That doesn't mean Peyroux and Jones are duplicates. Peyroux's voice doesn't always convey the purity and ethereal beauty of Jones', but her jazz-rooted style is generally bolder and more high concept.

At its best, Peyroux's approach is a warm, endearing mix of genres and eras that makes tunes more than half a century old sound modern and injects more contemporary material with a timeless, vintage feel.

Onstage Friday at the Greek Theatre, the slender singer, who accompanied herself on acoustic guitar, sounded so much like the late Billie Holiday on older numbers that the suspicious in the audience might have wondered whether she was lip-synching.

There were many of the same sultry, smoky tones and, especially, the remarkable phrasing that made Holiday such a major influence on Frank Sinatra and others -- the holding of some notes, the slight slurring of others, the quick kiss-off of still others.

But Holiday, who died in 1959, never recorded tunes by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, which best showcased Peyroux's interpretive skills Friday.

After an opening set by Argentine jazz singer Gabriela Anders, who moved between moments of generous invention and perky predictability, Peyroux and her four musicians opened with "Don't Wait Too Long." It's the song she co-wrote with Harris and Larry Klein, and it is pleasant but conventional.

There's only so much any singer can do with lyrics that are as plain as "You can cry a million tears / You can wait a million years."

The music's pulse quickened when the Georgia native followed with "Don't Cry Baby," a gutsier tune associated with '30s blues queen Bessie Smith.

But it was on the third song, Cohen's mystical "Dance Me to the End of Love," that the singer's performance went from well-executed concept to stirring artistry.

One of the hardest things in pop is for great artists of one generation to adjust to the artistry of later generations. For all his brilliance, Sinatra often seemed clueless when trying to update his act in the '60s and '70s with rock or pop hits.

Peyroux (sounds like "Peru") bridges the generations wonderfully, applying with ease her classic vocal values to the complexities and contradictions in Cohen's '80s ballad.

She was equally illuminating when she moved to "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," a Dylan tune from his landmark "Blood on the Tracks" album. Her light, playful rendition captured the sometimes hidden wit in the tune:

Yer gonna make me wonder what I'm doin'

Stayin' far behind without you ....

Yer gonna make me give myself a good talkin' to.

As the evening wore on in a 90-minute set that drew chiefly from "Careless Love" (which has sold nearly 300,000 copies in the U.S.), Peyroux moved increasingly from Holiday's shadow, reaching out to country, blues, folk and pop material -- but never violating Holiday's classic, haunting grace.

On this tour, she is blessed by a terrific band, especially pianist Kevin Hays, whose versatile playing kept pace with the intricate nuance and imagination of her singing.

At 31, Peyroux seems to have found her voice and direction after an eight-year break between her debut album and "Careless Love." For the encore, Peyroux, who lived several years in Paris, added even more dimension to the evening with a gorgeous rendition of "La Vie en Rose."

If her art and audience continue to expand, it shouldn't be long before record labels daydream about calling some sensitive newcomer's debut "File Under Madeleine Peyroux."

*

Robert Hilburn, pop music critic of The Times, can be reached at Robert.hilburn@latimes.com

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