“I was not born in Alabama in the 1890s,” writes Hugh Laurie, in introduction to– and, perhaps, defense of– his first album as a recording artist, Let Them Talk. He continues, “I’ve never eaten grits, cropped a share, or ridden a boxcar. No gypsy woman said anything to my mother when I was born and there’s no hellhound on my trail, as far as I can judge. Let this record show that I am a white, middle-class Englishman, openly trespassing on the music and myth of the American south.”
It’s with this sort of faux-apology that Laurie does his best to explain who he is and why he’s made this music– American music, yes, and blues music to boot. The liner notes and even the record’s title suggest a sort of preemptive defusing of a critical drumming, one that has less to do with the quality of the music itself than with a rather nebulous idea of “authenticity.” After all, news of the album’s existence broke at around the same time Laurie was outed as TV’s highest-paid actor– hardly a great circumstance from which a white British thespian might launch an album that stomps through the province of impoverished, elderly black men– and besides, he has been a comedian and actor for so long now that the British press is likely to feel a certain sense of bewilderment at the very notion of him stepping out of the comfy box in which they’ve asked him to remain. I understand why the man would feel apprehensive, and I am genuine in my hope that his sly defense strategy is as effective as it needs to be.
But I am overjoyed to discover that the whole this is rather unnecessary. The album speaks for itself, and it’s as smokin’ hot an American roots album as anyone could hope to hear in 2011– and this I say without qualification it isn’t just a good effort from an actor-gone-recording-star, but a stirring and singular work that finds easy company in recent albums by Dr. John and Allen Toussaint (“real” musicians!). I invoke these two names intentionally, as both are stalwarts of the New Orleans music scene– embodying the spirit of that place better than any two living people, perhaps– and both offer their own contributions to Laurie’s album, which may have something to do with shoring up some serious Crescent City cred or may simply stem from the truth that they’re both remarkable musicians, and who wouldn’t want to have them play on his recording debut? Let Them Talk bears an especially acute spiritual bond to Toussaint’s recent work The Bright Mississippi, partly because the two albums share the same producer and many of the same musicians and even some of the same songs, but mostly because it captures a certain joyful revelry in the city and music of New Orleans, rending it in all its inherent strangeness and glory, the full weight of history at its back but never at the detriment of the music’s own liveliness and present-day resonance. Laurie’s album is, in short, as fine a summation of New Orleans’ spirit as any of ‘em, whether he’s a native or not. So let them talk: They will find no easy criticisms, at least none based on the music itself.
The specifics are these: Laurie cut the whole thing with producer Joe Henry and an assortment of his typical Garfield House players (though it’s worth noting that they went off-site for this project, seemingly without compromise to their usual spirit of camaraderie). He sang and played piano on every scrap of this thing– even Dr. John, Laurie’s long-time piano idol, is invited only for a vocal cameo, seemingly at Henry’s insistence that this be Laurie’s album all the way. And the whole thing is killer from top to bottom. The sessions are imbued with live-on-the-floor intimacy and spontaneity. Laurie really shines from behind the piano– but of course, that was never really in question; music has been a big part of what he’s done on A Bit of Fry and Laurie and even House, so this project has never been about him proving his musical chops, but rather his passion for the music of New Orleans. On that front he couldn’t have picked a better musical partner: Henry’s albums are all about stripping away the excess to reveal the hidden truth of the matter, and the truth here really seems to be that this stuff speaks to Hugh Laurie– and here, it speaks to us, through him.
Taken in that light, the closing number, “Let Them Talk,” seems less a defensive gesture and more a love letter to this music– this culture– itself. “Swanee River” is another key track– a song Laurie remembers from his adolescent piano lessons, rendered here as a gloriously ragged full-band rave. More than once on the track you can hear Laurie give way to giddy laughter, his sheer revelry in this material carrying him away– and it’s perhaps the greatest sound you’ll hear on the entire record, which is no slight to the music itself. As to the rest of the track selection, Joe Henry wisely guides his protege through a series of blues songs– most of which are associated, in some form or fashion, with the city of New Orleans– and a few New Orleans R&B tunes, and shrewdly avoids tipping the scale in either direction. The album doesn’t lean too far in the direction of the blues– not to the extent of the mortality-courting record Henry produced for Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, for instance– but neither does it overplay its intentions to do the Crescent City justice; there are no references to levees or hurricanes or Mardi Gras here, no rendition of “When the Saints” or “My Indian Red.” They are songs that speak, in different ways, to joy and grief, heartache and happiness, and they speak in the shades of humor and idiosyncrasy that you’ll only find in American roots music. (Indeed, it’s easy to see why these wonderfully weird and deeply human selections would appeal to a born storyteller like Laurie; he sings all three parts in “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” using different voices, and if I say he approaches these songs like an actor, I don’t mean it as an affront to his chops as a blues singer, but rather as high praise for his instincts as a raconteur.)
Joe Henry’s albums all play like complete sentences, and this one is no exception. It begins with an almost symphonic overture, a stunning and epic take on “St. James Infirmity” that plays up what a weird and brutally beautiful song that really is, and gives notice that this record is serious business; if Laurie wanted crossover pop success, or indeed, if his intentions were anything other than sincere, one imagines he’s never begin his record on a note so bold. It ends as perfectly as it begins; “Let Them Talk” is a Valentine to this music, and in its own way plays like the mirror-image follow-up to that first song, small and intimate where the opener is rather grand but equally earnest in its tribute to American song. (I should also note that you don’t have to buy into my theory that the song’s sentiment is directed at the music of New Orleans; it is a lovely and striking thing on the level of a human love song as well.) Between the two, there’s plenty of local color, heart, history, and humanity. “They’re Red Hot” is a lark, a song too brief to be considered a highlight but irresistible in the little bump-in-the-road it provides for this program; I assume it’s here because it’s fun and fast-paced and old-timey, and because it provides Laurie a chance to sing about hot tamales. Dr. John brings memorable grit to his vocal turn on “After You’re Gone,” and there are soulful cameos from Irma Thomas and Sir Tom Jones, as well; I don’t think their help was enlisted because Laurie needed the help– he’s a fine singer– nor do I think this music needed to has its authenticity validated– it’s self-evident. I think, simply, that these singers were available; that the spirit of New Orleans is a communal one, so why not invite some friends to the celebration; and that Laurie’s ambitions for this project are solely divorced from ego or vanity, so I suspect he had no problem yielding the mike for a few turns.
Henry, for his part, brings to each song exactly what it needs, and complements Laurie’s own storytelling gifts; he enlists Toussaint to arrange horn charts for several numbers, and the brass section is especially welcome on a strutting R&B number like “You Don’t Know My Mind.” I am pleased to hear Joe Henry– a man whose calling card has always been a stripped-to-the-bone simplicity– avoid going the way of T-Bone Burnett and fetishizing sparseness just for sparseness’ sake, instead bringing a fullness to these songs that sets it apart from his other productions. That said, he doesn’t overindulge. “Police Dog Blues” is constructed from voice and guitar alone, a perfect showcase for the song’s comedic bent– truly, it’s a perfect fit for Laurie– and he brings an austere touch to “Six Cold Feet in the Ground,” a blues song that looks to the grave and would be rather too expected on a more introspective or fatalistic record by an older, veteran artist, but here provides a haunting counterpart to its livelier surroundings.
Of course Laurie and Henry both know that a song like that isn’t strictly the property of those nearing the end of life; the song fits Laurie’s purposes here just as well as do “Battle of Jericho” and “The Whale Has Swallowed Me,” two songs steeped in gospel. To the best of my knowledge Laurie is not a religious man, but these are evocative and universal stories whether you’re taking them as biblical narratives or as blues songs, and they’re as much a part of American myth and music– and New Orleans history– as anything else here. The arrangements here have red blood flowing through their veins, the same blood that keeps “John Henry” from being a mere historical artifact– it’s no relic, but a swinging and deeply soulful tall tale– and indeed, the same blood that allows Laurie and Henry to construct “Tipitana”– one of those sacred New Orleans songs that a more cautious duo wouldn’t have touches– into a masterful build-up, a monument to the music and the feel of this place as a cultural, spiritual, and geographic center.
But then, you could say the same of the project as a whole. This is not, I don’t think, intended to be a musical approximation of Laurie’s own biography; scanning these selections for insight into his own life and career might yield some very general anecdotes, but the point of this record, I’m inclined to say, is music for its own sake– and this music swings mightily, with joy and with deep feeling. Laurie remains a white British thespian, and I suspect that his bank account will not greatly be affected by the sales of this album, whether it’s a blockbuster or a bomb. But these are his blues as much as anyone else’s; he has every right to sing these songs and to pull them off without artifice, something this record proves beyond any reasonable doubt.