Blue Room is Madeleine Peyroux's quasi-tribute to Ray Charles, and more specifically to his 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Covers of five songs from that album appear on The Blue Room, alongside compositions by Buddy Holly, Randy Newman, and Warren Zevon. The Charles votarism should come as no surprise, given that Peyroux titled her 2004 album Careless Love, and that she hasn't exactly been averse to the odd Charles cover on stage and on record. But Peyroux has always played the votary to someone or other: She forged her own vocal identity in merging the earthy approach of Bessie Smith with the more refined delivery of Billie Holiday, Peyroux's chief American influence. (Part French, Peyroux also betrays traces of a childhood spent listening to Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour.) Produced by longtime collaborator Larry Klein and backed on guitar by the very lithe Dean Parks, The Blue Room is a sensuous but also very sad album. If Peyroux is guilty of undersinging on occasion, this very tendency is awfully refreshing in an era where mindless, high-volume vocal trillings so often masquerade as interpretation.
Vince Mendoza's string arrangements are the only real sonic addition to Peyroux's palette on Blue Room. The strings accompany a majority of the songs and can seem intrusive at times, but they also represent the album's defining element. At his best, Mendoza lends a mournful, almost hallucinogenic sheen to traditional country-jazz shuffles (think Henry Mancini via George Martin), evoking without words the despairing philosophy of the album. (Charles was no fool: He knew country was about pain, perhaps even more than the blues.) Whereas cut-rate Nelson Riddle imitations too often cheapened a good Charles album, perhaps because it was such an obvious a play to the white market, Mendoza's strings offer a bittersweet bed for Peyroux's reliably well-phrased, discursive vocal style.
None of the songs here break 90 beats per minute, and the trancey singularity of pace won't please everyone. But the album bears no trace of a dud. "Born to Lose," one of the Charles numbers, is a classic Peyroux performance that inverts the pity-plea of the original into something considered and introspective—no small feat. (The song's muted trumpet solo matches Peyroux in careful phrases that don't end where you expect.) There's the whisper of a more excursive instinct here, something in the Miles Davis/Nefertiti vein on the instrumental side, but experimentation isn't exactly Peyroux's bag anyway, and the band's task here is first and foremost not to intrude. Peyroux's performance of Randy Newman's "Guilty" is vivid and vulnerable, the singer playing a woman who makes an ill-advised appearance at her ex's place after a night of whiskey and cocaine. "How come I never do what I'm s'posed to do?" she asks, while delivering the line "It takes a whole lot of medicine/For me to pretend I'm somebody else" with a knowingness that just cleaves your heart.
If Peyroux's "Bye-Bye Love" is even more wooden than the 1969 Simon & Garfunkel cover, her version of Leonard Cohen's "Bird on the Wire" is a thing of aching beauty: She sounds nearly like Johnny Cash in those little contralto moments, and the strings elevate the song like the emotional tightrope it describes. Peyroux enters a song with such emotional presence that you hardly even notice the ease with which she interrupts an elegant melodic variant (for just a syllable or two) to enter the conversational mode. "Like a drunk in a midnight choir/I have tried in my way to be free," Peyroux sings in "Bird on the Wire." This even-handed negotiation with the sacred and profane is her specialty, and her particular genius (to use a very Ray Charles word) is to embody this negotiation in her songs, whether they're original (as on 2009's Bare Bones) or, more often, very well-culled standards. The sacred and the profane—that's très French, but also très R&B. Loyal to her own dual heritage and willing to value her own divided animal instincts, Peyroux remains such a beguiling singer that it's hard to care if her albums often sound the same.