New from Piety: Faithfull and Laurie

Last year, Marianne Faithfull and actor Hugh Laurie (star of House) made pilgrimages to Piety Street Recording to cut albums, each with some measure of New Orleans beyond the studio they were cut in. Faithfull’s Horses and High Heels was cut with a core band of Carlo Nuccio on drums, George Porter, Jr. on bass, Bob Andrews on keyboards and roots-rock guitarist Doug Pettibone, and contributions from Dr. Jimbo Walsh, Matt Rhody, Helen Gillet, Anthony Cuccia and more. They weren’t hired to make this Faithfull’s New Orleans album, though, and grooving is rarely their purpose. They give her cover of Allen Toussaint’s cover of “Back in Baby’s Arms” a sexy, loping groove, and they make the version of Jackie Lomax’s “No Reasons” smolder. But when it’s time to be stately for Faithfull’s take on the Shangri-Las’ “Past Present and Future,” they create a very European sense of drama.

Put aside all the New Orleans-oriented questions and Horses and High Heels is simply a very accessible Marianne Faithfull album. For much of her career, Faithfull has made her art as an interpreter of songs, sometimes by treating them as cabaret songs, sometimes by simply applying her distinctive voice to the tune. Horses and High Heels falls into the latter category. She doesn’t rethink the songs as much as she moves into them largely as they are and finds what’s there for her. In some cases, that works brilliantly. The age difference between her and Mary Weiss when she sang “Past Present and Future” transforms the Shangri-Las’ melodrama into something deeper and more disturbing, but there are a number of times when she doesn’t find much that hadn’t already been found. The lived-in wisdom of her voice suits “That’s How Every Empire Falls,” but John Prine’s version shares a similar gravitas. I want to hear her version of “Back in Baby’s Arms” as sexier than Toussaint’s, but I don’t.

Faithfull considers this a happy album, and it is. Hal Willner’s unfussy production lets that shine through, and maybe it’s a tribute to the band and the situation that Horses and High Heels sounds easy, like an album she could cut again tomorrow and the day after that.

Much of Hugh Laurie’s album of New Orleans blues was recorded in Los Angeles with producer Joe Henry, but they came to Piety Street to record horns arranged by Allen Toussaint for Let Them Talk. The British Laurie plays piano and sings in American English, which will likely be the sticking point for those resistant to the album. They’ll rightly find his voice theatrical, but not only is there a post-Beatles tradition of American artists (including Joey Ramone) feigning a British accent, but Laurie captures something essential about the music: It’s theatrical too.

From the Storyville piano professors to Mardi Gras Indians to second line brass bands to trad jazz combos, there’s always been a theatrical component, something at the heart of Louis Armstrong’s art, according to Ricky Riccardi’s book What a Wonderful World. Laurie doesn’t pretend to be an aging bluesman baring his soul; he honors the song as best he can and takes all questions of authenticity off the table. As such, it’s an honest album that reflects his passion for New Orleans music. He’s a good piano player, but he clearly knows better than to try to step into Booker or Longhair’s pianistic shoes.

It’s fair to wonder if a major record label would have supported this album if it didn’t have a marketable television star on the cover, but the material on the Joe Henry-produced album is well-chosen and well-performed. Scrape the Hollywood off and Let Them Talk would likely have been received as a well-meant, idiosyncratic tribute to New Orleans. The question is, will people be able to hear it that way.

Marianne Faithfull
Horses and High Heels

Hugh Laurie
Let Them Talk
(Warner Bros.)