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Madeleine Peyroux: Secular Hymns

John Eyles By

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Remarkably, Madeleine Peyroux's Secular Hymns comes twenty years after her debut release, Dreamland (Atlantic, 1996), which catapulted her into the public eye and garnered heaps of praise. Since then her voice has often been compared to mid-career Billie Holiday, and that comparison remains valid on Secular Hymns. Some singers would find that a millstone around their neck, but Peyroux continues to wear it well. It is surprising that, two decades since Dreamland, this is only her seventh solo album release. Those albums have never settled into a predictable pattern—for instance, some have contained mainly Peyroux originals, others few or none at all—but her name long ago became a guarantee of high quality music.

Coming on the heels of the Ray Charles-inspired The Blue Room (Decca/EmArcy, 2012), Secular Hymns again ploughs a new furrow. Rather than the larger groups that have featured on some of her albums, here she is just joined in her current touring trio by Steely Dan guitarist Jon Herington and Israeli-born bassist Barak Mori. The album was recorded in a 200-seater, twelfth-century Norman-styled church in Oxfordshire, at which the trio had played a concert-dinner event. Very taken with the way her voice sounded in the space, Peyroux and her live engineer, Doug Dawson, decided she should record an album there. That happened some months later at a free live show for the townspeople. The results fully justify the decision, as the sound is first-rate while the atmosphere brought out the best in the trio. The three together produce enough music with two guitars, double bass and voices to fill out the soundscape, so it never feels as if anything more should have been added.

There are no Peyroux compositions among the ten songs which cover an impressively broad time span and range of styles from the traditional spiritual "Trampin" and Stephen Foster's 1854 song "Hard Times Come Again No More" right through to contemporary composers Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt and Linton Kwesi Johnson. As ever, Peyroux's voice perfectly conveys every song's emotions, no matter how poignant the subject matter. On past albums she has repeatedly demonstrated her ability to sing the blues on songs by Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson, and on recordings with "Pinetop" Perkins. Here, her version of Willie Dixon's "If The Sea Was Whiskey" again showcases that ability.

For many listeners—and maybe for Peyroux herself—the track "Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On)" will be especially poignant as its composer, the New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, died suddenly while on tour in Europe, less than a year before this album's release. Toussaint played piano in the band on Peyroux's fine Standing on the Rooftop (Decca/EmArcy, 2011). The YouTube clip of the song below was filmed at the recording of Secular Hymns.

This album is a delight from start to finish, without a single track that is less than excellent. Peyroux continues to go from strength to strength.

Track Listing: Got You On My Mind; Tango Till They’re Sore; The Highway Kind; Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On); If The Sea Was Whiskey; Hard Times Come Again No More; Hello Babe; More Time; Shout Sister Shout; Trampin.

Personnel: Madeleine Peyroux: vocals, guitar: Jon Herington: guitar; Barak Mori: bass.

Title: Secular Hymns | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Impulse!

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