Hugh Laurie, known for portraying a talented, bitter physician on “House,” loves the blues, and despite being British, he’s released two blues albums — “Let Them Talk” and “Didn’t It Rain.”
I’m a bit impulsive at times, so when I saw the name “Hugh Laurie” on a CD on the shelf (yes, I still buy CDs, for I am old), I picked it up, saw the genre, shrugged, and decided it was worth a shot.
Had I thought about it a bit more, seeing the artist’s name on the front cover so much bigger than the name of the album, “Didn’t It Rain,” might have been a bit of a warning sign.
It’s a symptom of what I call “Saganitis,” which is what happens when a writer or musician becomes so famous that his or her name is much larger on the cover than the title of the work–and the work inside hasn’t been thoroughly edited or vetted, because it’s Carl Sagan for heaven’s sake, people will buy it regardless of what’s in it. (I don’t want to beat up on Sagan, whose work was excellent, but at least one of his latter works could have used more editing.)
Here’s the problem with “Didn’t It Rain.” While Laurie is a splendid blues pianist, playing with panache, musicality and just enough messiness for a true-blues sound, his singing is not so great. It’s not that it’s bad, per se–he’s hitting all the notes and nothing is off-key–but he sounds uncomfortable most of the time, as if he’s self-conscious.
The only song on the album that makes this work for it is “Kiss of Fire,” a lovely multilingual duet between Laurie and Guatemalan singer Gaby Moreno that’s based on “El Choclo.” If you’ve ever heard a tango in a movie, chances are very good that it was “El Choclo.”
Laurie’s self-consciousness as a singer works there because of the song’s subject matter–he’s in love with someone who lies to him, he knows it, and he has decided he doesn’t care. And a bit of the English reticence leaks through anyway–after all, the singer knows the relationship is a bad idea.
It’s a great song, but it’s one of the few on the album in which Laurie’s vocals really work. Apart from “Kiss,” the best tunes on the album are the ones in which Laurie plays the piano and lets others do the vocal lifting– “The Weed Smoker’s Dream” (which most people will recognize as “Why Don’t You Do Right“), or “I Hate a Man Like You,” or “Didn’t It Rain.”
As a blues pianist, Laurie is fantastic–dramatic, understated, insolent, coy, anything the song requires. As a singer, he’s weirdly self-conscious and almost apologetic. That means the album is flawed, but I’d still say the good outweighs the bad, and if you skip past most of Laurie’s singing tracks you’ll still have a good time with the CD.