Monday, October 10, 2011

Hugh Laurie let’s them talk

I've not yet seen any episode of House, the apparently hugely popular medical drama on US television and so I do not know why it is so big or why Hugh Laurie has suddenly become this mega star after many long years toiling in the show biz salt mines. My impression, possibly because of the Fry & Laurie comedy team, was that he is a comedian. Perhaps he is a comedian who wants to play Hamlet and found in House the next best thing. The American comedian Dennis Leary plays a fireman in what seems to be a dramatic role and Robin Williams hardly ever does comedy in movies anymore. Not that his so-called comedy films were that funny. But that is a subject for another time.

Hugh Laurie has a love for early jazz piano styles and blues end is quite accomplished as piano player and his fame as the doctor in House has given him the golden opportunity of recording a bunch of his favourite blues and New Orleans jazz tunes. This is not quite Scarlett Johansen recording an album's worth of Tom Waits songs.

Let Them Talk (2011) is this collection. Half of Hugh Laurie's unshaven, wrinkled face stares out from the CD cover. The look is not quite confident or daring. Perhaps it is wariness or weariness. Perhaps the expression does not need to mean anything and the shot is just some art director's grand concept.

As far as I can see Laurie is modest and self-effacing about this project. The obvious questions would be whether he is any good, whether he would have had this chance if it had not been for House and whether the world needs another White British would-be-bluesman. Laurie's best strategy for dealing with this kind of stick would be to face it head on and answer the queries before they are put to him, to deflect the criticism by pre-empting any questioner by raising the objections or issues himself rather than waiting to be assaulted with scorn or incredulity or simple bafflement.

Anyhow, Mr Laurie is not the first successful star to venture into a different field of artistic endeavour to the one he found his success in. It was always a show biz staple that musicians turned to movies. Nowadays actors front bands, or have solo careers, and some or quite successful and others are sneered at. If one is a renaissance person, why not try it all? A buck is a buck.

Another riveting example of a well-known personality taking on a surprising new direction is David Johansen who was the singer for the New York Dolls, then followed a solo New York rocker career (with a crack band and three or four great records), became the parody figure Buster Poindexter (with a hit song and all) and finally arrived at the blues from more or less the same period as the music on Let Them Talk, with the Harry Smiths, a reference to one of the pre-eminent collectors of American folk music, Harry Smith.

David Johansen has recorded 2 blues albums and I own one of them, Shaker (2002), which I came across at a flea market stall on Greenmarket Square many years ago. That guy had a box of cheap CDs with a deal of R20 each or 3 for R50 (or something like that) and the most interesting finds on his table were in that discount box, among them Shaker. My initial interest was that it was blues and cheap and therefore worth the risk that it might be crap. Surprisingly it turned out to be quite worthy. The song selection is good, the musicians know their stuff, play with subtlety and do justice to the material. Johansen's gravelly, lived-in voice suits the songs though he still sounds like a White guy doing the blues.

The good thing is that he sounds like a White guy who loves the blues and isn't trying to outdo the original artists whose songs he covers. He wants to do justice to the blues and he wants to have fun with it. In my book that is all right.

Hugh Laurie plays piano and guitar. He also sings the songs, albeit with some background assists on a couple of tunes from the likes of Irma Thomas, Dr John and Tom Jones, who can probably sing the proverbial phone book though I've never thought of him as a blues or soul singer. He is nicely understated and complements "Baby, Please Make A Change" and does bring gospel fervour to it that may be a bit hammy but is not out of place.

Laurie's home accent is probably middle class mid-Atlantic posh and he does not try to sound too Black, or blue. There is a curious similarity to the singing voice of one of our imminent local musicians, and coincidentally also a keyboard player, the inimitable Simon Orange, one of the main members of the Blues Broers. They must be of an age, too.

The musical backing is provided by a small, sympathetic band of easy swinging professionals. I bet these guys can do this kind of thing in their sleep and know, given that the star of this show is also the star of another show, their job is to do their job with effective circumspection. This is what they do. You can't beat a bunch of American roots musicians playing their roots.

The songs mix very old jazz tunes, spirituals, archaic pop and blues. In a way this feel and mood is what Eric Clapton aimed at on his Clapton album, and maybe what Bob Dylan was trying to hit with the blues tropes on his most recent albums. Dylan's band sound more electric and spirited yet the more traditional approach of Clapton and Laurie is more effective In doing justice to the material. The guys obviously have respect for their material as reflecting a time and a place now only dim legend but once live and absolutely kicking. Dylan sounds like he is spoofing the blues; Clapton and Laurie interpret the blues and mould that vision to their particular strengths.

The piano playing is great stuff. I guess Laurie is the main guitar player on "The Whale Has Swallowed Me" but otherwise I would not know the difference between his contributions and that of his band guitarist.

My main gripe against the music is that it is a tad too tasteful and respectful. The old blues guys were often rough and ready and got nasty when it suited the song. They were not necessarily technically gifted or trained and when they developed a signature sound it took a while to get there and, once established, remained unchanged for the rest of their lives. As in the case of, say, Elmore James or Albert King, they made the most of what they had and managed to ring the changes with sufficient ingenuity to keep their music fresh. The people behind Laurie do not come across as musicians who would ever just get crazy for the hell of it; they are too much the professionals' professionals for that, and that is the missing link between authentic blues and homage to the blues.

Lonnie Johnson's blues recordings are some of the most studied, regular solo acoustic blues tunes I've heard and they completely lack excitement, especially as Johnson does not even have an interesting singing voice. He simply utilises the blues as a commercial style unlike, say, Son House, Charley Patton or Robert Johnson who come across as visceral on record as they must have been in person when they were at the peak of their performing careers. Hugh Laurie at least has a better, more versatile, vocal instrument than Lonnie Johnson. The danger is that he is also most likely utilising a style for effect rather than as an expressed internalisation, however much he loves the songs he performs on this album.

The other White blues band leader whose album I've listened to recently is Mick Fleetwood, who led an electric band along with guitarist Rick Vito, to record a selection of blues and Fleetwood Mach standards. Fleetwood's album sounds a lot more like showbiz blues than Hugh Laurie's earnest effort, partly, I guess, because Fleetwood had been in the music business and the blues business for far longer than Hugh Laurie and knows more about pleasing an audience with more of the old, familiar songs. Laurie's choices are not particularly obscure, especially for any aficionado of blues and early jazz, yet they are not hoary through endless repetition and recycling either.

Ostensible the title track "Let Them Talk" is a declaration that the singer will love his lover come what may but my guess is that the subtext is Laurie's deep and lasting affection for the music on this album and his intention to pursue this muse irrespective of what the critics may say. Good for him. This may be the first and last record Hugh Laurie ever gets to release and it is not a bad testament to his abilities as pianist, singer and interpreter of old timey music. I hope there will be more. If this album sells by the truckload and the television series House remains popular the record company will want more product. That is the nature of the beast. They do not care whether this collection of tunes represents something elemental in Hugh Laurie's life adventure, or reflects his no now longer secret creative passion, and if the album dies the death, they will write if off to experience and tax and will no longer assist him in sharing with us another side of his psyche. If it fails commercially Let Them Talk will become just another vanity release. If it sells, Hugh Laurie may find himself doing world tours playing for adoring audiences and recording an album a year, like some non-crooning Michael Bublé. Stranger things have happened.

I like this album. Not as much as, for example, David Johansen's, as it is just too smooth to be the kind of visceral musical experience I dig the most, but I will listen to it more than once and I suspect it will grow on me. It is damning with faint praise to call this a decent effort. That, however, is what it is. It is tasteful, proficient, effective. It is neither iconoclastic nor over-awed by his influences. It is good, not excellent. It is enjoyable, not thrilling. Perhaps this is what Hugh Laurie set out to achieve, with modest aims and modest expectations. He is not a bluesman but my guess is that he does not pretend to be one, though he may love the music, or intend to be seen as one. He has simply taken a bunch of old tunes in a genre he loves and recorded them with a crack band and some heavy show biz friends, with good humour and excitement and has produced a result.

He talked the talk and I believed we can credit him with walking the walk, on his own terms and with his own style.

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