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By Tim Roberts
One aspect of music criticism is comparison of one performer to another. In other words: "Track X by artist Y on recording Z may remind listeners of track A by Artist B on recording C (which is probably their weakest effort since D, E, or even F)." Sometimes these comparisons are a dodge, though, because the critic may not have anything original to say about the artist being reviewed. Or he could be on an unreasonable deadline inflicted by a sadistic editor.
But some performers have vocal or instrumental styles that are virtual clones of others. What's even more freakish is when those performers make the styles their own and make them work. So imagine Billie Holiday singing Patsy Cline, Bessie Smith, and Edith Piaf. That's Madeleine Peyroux and her premiere release Dreamland.
Peyroux's voice is eerily similar to Billie Holiday's, that sonorous combination of throaty and nasal tenor. But she sounds less slurry, more sure of herself. Even after hearing the first track, a cover of "Walkin' After Midnight," one of Patsy Cline's signature pieces, you may think that some lucky recording engineer had done a digital scour job on a rediscovered tape of Lady Day. Need to be more convinced of the similarity? Then try the next track, the bluesy "Hey Sweet Man," written by Peyroux herself.
She swings her way through some old jazz standards, "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," "(Getting Some) Fun Out of Life," and "Was I?" And she sweetly sings Edith Piaf's "La Vie en Rose" in fluent French and backed, appropriately, by violin and accordion.
Peyroux's songwriting talents are further demonstrated on two other selections: the romantic "Always A Use," where she and Marc Ribot play acoustic guitar and the dobro (respectively), and the title track "Dreamland," backed by all her session players and an orchestra. Those session players include a number of names from jazz: pianist Cyrus Chestnut, drummers Kenny Wollison, and Leon Parker, and bassist Greg Cohen.
Two Bessie Smith standards, "Reckless Blues" and "Homesick Blues" round out Dreamland.
Peyroux may be criticized for mimicking Billie Holiday's style. Even the material she has selected could have been performed by Holiday decades ago, with almost the same result. But it is the voice she was physiologically born with (as was Billie). What she has done musically is the same thing that Billie – and all other outstanding vocal stylists – have done. Charm us. Move us. And make us feel.