Album Reviews: Half the Perfect World by Madeleine PeyrouxIn the world of adult pop/jazz crossover artists, Madeleine Peyroux has long been known, somewhat dismissively, as "that girl who sounds like Billie Holiday." Her tone and phrasing are sometimes so close to Lady Day's that when her song, "Don't Wait Too Long," was featured in a Dockers commercials, a lot of people assumed they were hearing Holiday herself. And on her third album, Half the Perfect World, the resemblance is still there -- but for the first time, it's just that, a resemblance, and not quite so uncomfortably close to imitation. As a result, Half the Perfect World is easily Peyroux's most satisfying work to date, and could very likely be the one that catapults her to Norah Jones-like levels of popularity.
As on her last album, Careless Love, Peyroux is paired here with producer Larry Klein and his impeccable group of studio musicians, which includes David Piltch on bass, Jay Bellerose on drums, Dean Parks on guitar and Sam Yahel on piano, Wurlitzer and Hammond organ. Their jazzy, restrained accompaniment fits Peyroux's melancholy, low-key delivery like a glove, giving the album a sort of luminous, autumnal feel that the Starbucks crowd should slurp down like a vanilla latte. That's not to say that the sound is calculated or overtly commercial -- on the contrary, Half the Perfect World has an almost painterly sense of craft that most of today's overproduced adult pop sorely lacks.
Peyroux continues to make smart, risk-taking choices in her material -- here she tackles everything from Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'" (made famous by Harry Nilsson) to Tom Waits' "The Heart of Saturday Night" to Charlie Chaplin's "Smile," as well as two songs by one of her favorites, Leonard Cohen. Her only misstep is an overly faithful version of Joni Mitchell's "River," which wastes both a guest vocal by k.d. lang and Peyroux's own talent for careful phrasing and tone -- Mitchell's melodies are too swooping and ornamental for Peyroux to truly make them her own.
Covers aside, the album features four originals that are all varying degrees of brilliant -- thanks in no small part, I'm sure, to the contributions of co-songwriter Jesse Harris, the man responsible for many of Norah Jones' best-loved songs (and for "Don't Wait Too Long"). Opening track "I'm All Right" is the obvious hit, an irresistibly breezy, laugh-so-you-don't-cry paean to a lost lover, but the album's real stunner is "Once in a While," a string-laden ballad that is the most honest and vulnerable work of Peyroux's career.
Billie Holiday resemblance aside, Madeleine Peyroux has grown into one of those singers, like Holiday or Nina Simone or Patsy Cline, who can express a world of emotion in the most understated of deliveries. That gift, and Larry Klein's keen understanding of how to showcase it, elevates Half the Perfect World out of the world of coffeehouse pop and into the upper ranks of the year's best albums. - Andy Hermann
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