Album Reviews

Madeleine Peyroux

Secular Hymns

Artist:     Madeleine Peyroux

Album:     Secular Hymns

Label:     Verve

Release Date:     09/16/2016


Some artists prefer recording familiar songs in the halls of railroad stations (see Bragg and Henry review next week), while Madeleine Peyroux opts for a church. It’s always a momentous event when Peyroux releases a new project, because she has an unmatched seductively expressive voice and defies easy categorization, fitting in somewhere between jazz, blues and roots despite whatever song she decides to sing. The story behind this record is as compelling as the music, but before we get there, let me further set the stage. This album comes twenty years after her debut, Dreamland, and comes as a stripped down effort with her other two bandmates of the past two years, electric guitarist Jon Herrington and upright bassist Barak Mori, both of whom add harmony vocals. Peyroux uniquely interprets tunes by blues artists, gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, dub star Linton Kwesi Johnson, four renowned composers (Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt, Allen Toussaint, Leonard Cohen), the 19th century composer Stephen Foster and ends with a traditional African-American spiritual.

Peyroux originally set out to record- in a live setting- a collection of songs that have their own hymn-like stories of self-awareness and inner dialogue, songs that have a spiritual quality in a secular way. It’s hard to picture Peyroux doing spiritual religious music, because she has such an outright sophisticated, sexy vibe. Okay – we’ll go to the story now.

It starts with a concert in an old church in the rural Oxfordshire countryside of England. Celebrated French chef Raymond Blanc purchased an old manor in the tiny village of Little Milton and renamed it Belmond Le Manoir, and there he hosts events, including a nine-course meal in an upscale restaurant. As a part of the whole experience, people are invited before dinner to go to the nearby 12th-century Norman-styled church, St. Mary the Virgin, to attend a concert of live music. Last year, Peyroux and her trio were invited to perform. “At the sound check, I was singing Randy Newman’s song, “Guilty,” and it was amazing the way my voice sounded in the cavernous room,” Peyroux says. “It has a wood ceiling that gave my voice a reverb. My live engineer Doug Dawson told me I should make a record there.” They wanted to try some new sounds too. “We had all become very close, and we were stretching to come up with new sounds,” acoustic guitar playing Peyroux says, noting that she had added a guilele (an acoustic, nylon-stringed tenor ukulele) to the voice of the band. “Jon [Herington] became very versatile on the guitar and Barak [Mori] was good with the bow. Plus they both like to sing.”

Peyroux booked the 200-seat church for three days—first day for set up and sound check, second for a free live show for townspeople that was recorded, and third to recut new live takes sans audience if needed. “It was a blast playing with Jon and Barak and so much had to do with the interplay among us,” says Peyroux. “It’s a recording that reflects the organic way we had been working as a trio on the arrangements of these songs.”

Listen carefully. She’s right about the interplay among the players. Close your eyes and you can practically see them smiling. Heck, you can see it yourself and watch them playing in the church by going to YouTube for “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky,” as they interpret Allen Toussaint.

-Jim Hynes


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