REVIEW: Madeleine Peyroux, Dreamland (Atlantic)

- Jon Steltenpohl

Musicians who go back to their roots are nothing new. But every once in a while, a new artist comes along and breathes new life into a genre. Newcomer Madeleine Peyroux is one of those artists. W hile musicians like Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday are certainly not forgotten, there aren't many modern artists who do anything but covers that sound like, well, covers. Peyroux does the grand matriarchs true justice by singing like she's a contemporary rather than a mimic.

Take the first track, a cover of "Walkin' after Midnight". You can arguably ask why another version of this song needs to be recorded, but Peyroux finds her own path through the song. With the help of a tender Hammond organ from Charlie Giordano, Mark Ribot's guitar, and James Carter's bluesy saxophone, Peyroux pulls off a lazy, loping version that never begs to be compared to the original.

"Hey Sweet Man", the second track, is a classic seduction song in the style of Bessie and Billie. "Got a mind to love you. My love won't leave you be.", sings Peyroux. Ribot's sparse dobro sets off her perfectly sultry voice. She bends her notes around each word, and ends each phrase in a fading vibrato. Marcus Printup adds a few touches of trumpet in place of a traditional harmonica, and the effect is the same as any classic recording from the first half of the century.

But, the surprise comes when you look for the credits and find that Peyroux herself wrote "Hey Sweet Man". It's actually one of three songs she penned herself. The other two are equally impressive and each take on a different genre. "Always a Use" has a slight blues flavor to it, but is more of a sparse folk song in the style of Lucinda Williams (writer of the country song, "Passionate Kisses"). The title track, "Dreamland", is set with a more modern sound reminiscent of 10,000 Maniacs.

As the title would suggest, the mood of Dreamland is laid back and easy going. There are silly songs like "I'm Going to Sit Myself Down and Write Myself a Letter" and "Was I?". In "Was I?", Peyroux asks such morning after questions as "Was I drunk?, Was he handsome?, and Did momma give me hell?". Melancholy songs like the smokey French bar song, "La Vie en Rose", and the solemn "A Prayer" come at the album's midpoint. Then, to end on a high note, Peyroux gives us two able covers of Bessie Smith's "Reckless Blues" and "Lovesick Blues". It's a great close to a fabulous album.

Madeleine Peyroux has pulled off a tough task. Not everyone can cover classic songs with such style and poise, but Peyroux sings as if she was a sister to these ladies. Peyroux uses the expression in her voice to get the style across, and never pushes the limits. The music follows the same carefree style, and the effect is superb. These songs are simple, smooth, and uncluttered. Dreamland is an outstanding collection that will please new and old fans of traditional rhythm and blues. It is simply a marvelous album.

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