I asked Popdose Editor-In-Chief Jeff Giles if I could borrow the Wagner-Johnson-Downey Scale over the weekend. He agreed, provided I got it back to office when the Seth McFarlane big band-standards album showed up.
Go ahead. Ask, because I know you want to. What is the Wagner-Johnson-Downey Scale? It is a machine that gauges a continuum spanning the necessity of actors-turned-singers, and their subsequent recordings. All of the above work off some degree of vanity and, therefore, cannot be easily weighed against regular musical endeavors, but they can be weighed against each other. The (Jack) Wagner end finds the results marginally successful, even fondly remembered on occasion (if audiences of Mohegan Sun patrons and Heather Locklear are any indication). The (Don) Johnson measure logs a success marker even if those doing the calculations aren’t entirely sure why. The (Robert) Downey (Jr.) measure mixes Charlie Chaplin and Yes into the stew and nobody walks away happy.
So, where does that leave Hugh Laurie’s Let Them Talk, a loving and well-intentioned tribute to N’awlins Jazz? Laurie as chameleon has swayed the hearts and eyeballs of American audiences as Dr. House on the show of the same name (mostly), while others will fondly recall him as part of the (Stephen) Fry and Laurie comic duo, most notably in the UK’s Jeeves and Wooster adaptations. Laurie has a knack for assuming personae with distinct authority. Does he do it again as a Louisiana jazzbo? Well, yes and no.
He has found an able collaborator in unassailable producer Joe Henry who has surrounded Laurie with an impeccable ensemble. Laurie himself is credited with piano, guitar, percussion and vocals, lap-steel icon Greg Leisz is part of the main group as is keys-person Patrick Warren. Allen Toussaint arranges and conducts the horn section and guests include Dr. John, Irma Thomas, and Tom Jones. The latter two knock the doors down on “Baby Please Make A Change.” Henry’s production is lively and immediate. The problem is when Laurie sings.
It’s not that Laurie sings badly because, actually, he doesn’t. He hits the notes and sounds musical, but he’s trying so very hard. I mentioned Jones’ performance specifically because when he steps to the mic, he sounds like he’s “feeling it” and the performance is effortless. When Laurie sings, it is more performance than feeling, and you’re constantly aware of the singer, not the song. The closing, title cut is a primary example of this as Laurie sings words that, maybe, should sound a little off-key but shot through with the Holy Spirit. Laurie winds up assuming the cadence of a New Orleans singer, but not the soul, so even though the intention is correct and the love is there, it still sounds like second generation performance versus first generation passion.
If you look over the totality of New Orleans music, at least half of it is done by people who aren’t great singers. They haven’t got Three Tenor voices, and for some, the diction is atrocious. Yet it is heart and soul, that feeling where the singer is unloading his/her guts to you because the one he/she loves doesn’t love him/her back, or the depth of the blues and despair within can only be supported by the piano, barely propping the person up, that sustains it, makes it valid and righteous. While Laurie means well, and does pretty good, in the end it feels like only a partially realized role.
Not a Wagner, but not quite a Johnson, Let Them Talk is not a failure but can’t really stake claim to winning either.
Let Them Talk is available from Amazon.com.