Hugh Laurie is best known in America for playing cranky yet brilliant Dr. Gregory House on the hit Fox medical series, House. Fans of the show are aware from numerous scenes of Dr. House at the piano and strumming expensive guitars, that the actor has a taste for music. Now, that taste is a full blown horn of plenty on Hugh Laurie’s first CD, Let Them Talk.
A musician since the age of six, Hugh Laurie begins Let Them Talk with a three minute plus piece at the piano, backed by a little stand up bass, electric guitar and a hint of accordion. The opening serves as Laurie’s introduction to the audience as a real musician. The song, “St. James Infirmary” is Laurie showing off for any skeptics that indeed he is serious about being a musician; this ain’t no vanity project.
“St. James Infirmary” was famously recorded in the 1920’s by Louis Armstrong and his been a standard of New Orleans jazz for decades. New Orleans is a theme that runs throughout Let Them Talk. The CD is being accompanied by a PBS special on September 30th in which Laurie travels to New Orleans and talks about the history of New Orleans jazz and delivers his first American live performance.
Track two of Let Them Talk is Hugh Laurie taking on a blues standard made famous by Guy Davis. “You Don’t Know My Mind” has Laurie “Laughing just to keep from crying.” The stripped down tune has Laurie on the guitar demonstrating his secondary musical skill as a highly adept guitar picker.
“Six Cold Feet” is a classic blues ballad made famous by Leroy Carr in the 30’s. On “Six Cold Feet” Laurie’s muted piano is joined by stand up bass and a trumpet for a sound that rolls with unexpected warmth and comfort from a song called “Six Cold Feet.” Death is a popular theme in the Blues but it’s always tinged with a dark ironic humor that Laurie’s voice captures perfectly.
Bluesmen didn’t want to die but when your baby leaves you, what other feeling can you have but the wont for “Six Cold Feet.” Let them Talk was recorded in Los Angeles but the influence is all New Orleans and on “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” Laurie pays tribute to the legendary New Orleans Blues King in the same way Jelly Roll Morton did years ago.
“Buddy Bolden’s Blues” features lyrics by Morton set to Bolden’s own composition “Funky Butt.” Hugh Laurie is joined on “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” by a horn section organized by New Orleans’ own Allen Toussaint. The legendary New Orleans names don’t stop there as later Laurie is joined by Dr. John for the gorgeous ballad “After You’ve Gone” and, in arguably the CD’s most entertaining combination, Laurie duets with Grammy winner Irma Thomas on the railroad Blues jaunt “John Henry.”
On “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” Hugh Laurie wanders into unique cultural territory. ‘Jericho’ is a legendary ‘Negro Spiritual,’ a song that originated in the cotton fields before being made famous by performers like Paul Robeson and Mahalia Jackson. For a skinny Englishman, Laurie performs the hell out of the song.
That could be said of any song on Let them Talk. Laurie has poured his Blues loving heart into every chord of Let them Talk and his passion is infectious. That passion spills forth on the obligatory Robert Johnson cover “They’re Red Hot.” You can’t do an album of Blues covers without paying homage to Robert Johnson; with that said Laurie acquits himself quite well on guitar picking with astonishing speed and accuracy.
Surprisingly, it isn’t until you get to the CD’s seventh track, “The Whale Swallowed Me,” a cover of the legendary J.B Lenoir, where the fact that Laurie has sung the whole record in an American accent comes across. Laurie addressed the accent issue in an interview with StarNewsOnline.com
“It’s an American idiom, and I think it demands an American approach,” Laurie said. “I think to do a sort of a very deliberately English version, vocal version, of these songs would be… I think you’d constantly be catching your sleeve on it. It would be distracting. In the same way that I don’t personally want to hear Puccini in English. When people translate opera, it just you know… I don’t want to hear opera sung in the same the same voice that I order pizza in. It just doesn’t seem right.”
For fans of House the voice actually isn’t all that unusual, we’ve rarely heard Laurie’s accent outside of a few TV interviews. Most importantly, Laurie’s vocal, accent or no, is perfectly suited to the Blues. Like the great actor that he is Laurie treats each song like a script and the lyrics are his characters dialogue. He seeks the motivation of the character, finds it and sings it with entertaining fervor.
The CD’s finest moment however, doesn’t feature Hugh Laurie on lead vocal. “Baby Make a Change” pushes Laurie to the background alongside guest star Irma Thomas while Sir Tom Jones sings the lead. Jones, for me, has always been something of a Vegas caricature. Hearing Jones on this amazing Blues song however, leads me to wonder why Jones hasn’t recorded more songs like this; his voice is perfectly suited to the rhythm of the Blues.
Let them Talk is a surprise and a delight. Having never been a huge fan of the Blues, always appreciated it’s history, just not a regular listener, I found myself thoroughly entertained by Hugh Laurie’s vocals, piano and guitar and especially his taste in material and collaborators.
Laurie’s canny choices to work with the likes of Producer Joe Henry (Aimee Mann, Ani DiFranco), Allen Toussaint and the lovely Irma Thomas, reveal a musician with strong instincts for collaboration. Let them Talk is absolutely not a vanity project. This is one terrific Blues/Jazz record, wildly entertaining and highly skilled. A must for fans of the Blues, Jazz and House.
Let Them Talk was released on Sept 6th, 2011