If Dr. Gregory House, M.D. got put to work figuring out what doesn’t quite gel about actor Hugh Laurie’s debut album, "Let Them Talk," he’d run through a checklist trying to get at the core malady.
Could it be the musical genre, or choice of backup? No — the album’s jazzy New Orleans blues could hardly be more delectable in the hands of the great players assembled by producer Joe Henry. Could it be the guest stars? Hardly, when Dr. John, Irma Thomas, and Allen Toussaint all make prominent contributions.
How about Laurie, himself? Bingo, Dr. House. The British actor pretty much sticks to one method of singing throughout “Let Them Talk,” and it’s a vocal style best described as … “cranky.”
But these are the blues he’s singing, so if the curmudgeon-liness he cultivates on the small screen seems to have translated a bit to his singing, better this than having him try his voice at sensitive pop balladry.
And in fact, his vocal limitations — which you suspect he might be the first to admit, in the presence of the New Orleans legends he’s surrounded himself with — aren’t a fatal affliction for “Let Them Talk.” Compared to recent musical efforts by fellow thesps Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins, the album comes off as far less artistically ambitious but, on its own terms, far more unpretentiously enjoyable.
Laurie proves a capable enough pianist in the three and a half minutes of instrumental overture that open the album, and when the vocals kick in on Louis Armstrong’s “Saint James Infirmary,” his unabashed cockiness in delivering boasts like, “She may search this world over, she won’t ever find another man like me,” just about compensates for the missing nuance.
His American accent may strike some as unbearably affected, but it’s the most obvious choice for the material, even if it might have made for a more interesting experiment to hear “Tipitina” sung with “Blackadder” inflections.
“Let Them Talk” fares worst when Laurie tackles straight 12-bar blues, as he does in “Six Cold Feet.” He doesn’t invest old-school lyrics like “Remember me baby when I’m in six feet of cold, cold ground” with enough interesting vocal quality the first time around, so you’re not really that eager to hear him repeat the same line a moment later.
Fortunately, he’s fine when things get livelier, especially when Laurie adopts a barrelhouse feel that gives “Swanee River” just the right rolling motion.
While you expect the appearances by Thomas, Dr. John, and Tom Jones to all be duets with the actor, he’s modest and/or smart enough to let these vets take over for the entire tune while he restricts himself to piano accompaniment. That risks making Laurie’s voice sound more inadequate by comparison when he returns on the tracks that follow, yet he’s built up so much good will in surrendering the mic that you stop noticing the inequity.
Enjoyment of “Let Them Talk” will be predicated on predisposition toward Laurie as a personality, since nobody (probably least of all him) would argue he’d be getting a recording contract to cut uncommercial regional material as a non-celebrity.
But if you’ve already fallen for him — as Wooster, House, or almost equally crusty Hugh — there’s little reason not to further surrender to an album that has its heart and collaborators in the right place. It’s a vanity project oddly riddled with humility.