When Madeleine Peyroux started her career with an album (1996’s Dreamland) that heroically aped her heroines (Billie, Bessie, Edith), she couldn’t have realized she’d live in purgatory for the next eight years. Peyroux buoyantly challenged the blues and teased jazz vocal standards with her supple, smoky voice; an array of players ached to bathe her vocals in the cool waters of sympathetic sound. What made her wait until 2004 for its followup is a question with few good answers. The Georgia-born, Paris-busking Peyroux makes up for lost time with this, her third album in five years.
While previous efforts depended on songwriters from the golden ’20s up through modern American masters such as Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, Bare Bones is the sound of Peyroux, the lyricist, and her closest collaborators hashing it out, seemingly sometime in 1976 and somewhere between the Los Angeles and Manhattan skylines that inspired Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell’s arid ambient swell.
You can blame Mitchell’s ex-husband, producer/bassist Larry Klein, and his guitarist pal Dean Parks for lending their atmospheres to the twanging blues shuffle of “Instead.” Peyroux takes it from there with happy-go-pragmatic lyrics and shushy singing. The cool stammering melody that Steely’s Walter Becker provides “You Can’t Do Me” gives a sultry Peyroux and her jumping pianist Jim Beard an ample opportunity for something provocative—Peyroux’s sexiest song yet. But make no mistake: While Bare Bones’ surround-sounds may come from friends and producers, all serve at the pleasure of Peyroux. And that pleasure—from the lonely chamber folk of “Our Lady of Pigalle” to the sweetly barren jazz of “Somethin’ Grand”—is all ours as Peyroux wheedles and piques the most from every lyrical phrase.