It may sound obvious, even somewhat inane. But when it comes to singer Madeleine Peyroux, the one thing people just can't seem to get over is her voice.
With good reason - the 37-year-old vocalist has one of those singular instruments, the kind that cuts through the roar of everyday life and quietly insists on being heard. A contemporary Billie Holiday, many have labeled her. Indeed, her voice has an eerily similar quality that transcends time, audience and, on her latest album, genre.
On "Standing on the Rooftop," Peyroux's fifth album, the Brooklyn-based singer has shifted her focus from the blues and jazz of the early 20th century to the American roots sound of the 1960s and '70s.
"This was sort of a way of expanding the horizon by including stuff that's always been dear to my heart," she says by phone from New York.
Peyroux's voice is far from the only thing she brings to the table. In addition to having written many of the songs on the album, she approaches her selections with an artistic sensibility as distinctive as her vocals.
"Sound-wise and color-wise, I really wanted to get to an impressionistic version of like a Steve Reich piece," she says. "Something much more minimalist where there's a lot of groove-based beds to the track, with sort of an unclear harmony underneath it."
Most of the tracks are intently focused on rhythm and bass, using sparse instrumentation as wispy brush strokes, subtly shading the mood of the song. There's plenty of space for Peyroux's long, languorous phrasing to softly drape itself around the chord changes.
"I think we can be aware of the passage of time and yet be separated from it, especially in music," Peyroux says. "I tried to make the space wider in between the lyrics, rather than shorter, which is probably where our attention span is."
While covers of the Beatles' "Martha My Dear" and Bob Dylan's "I Threw It All Away" lay the foundation for the album's roots concept, they are some of its more straight-ahead tracks. And with the exception of the electric, almost mystical arrangement of Robert Johnson's "Love in Vain," the most intriguing parts are actually Peyroux's original songs.
"Ophelia" rings with the "marimba-ish" overdub of keys player Patrick Warren as Peyroux inhabits the story of a woman drawn to the river. The punchy, funky "The Kind You Can't Afford" - written with the Rolling Stones' Bill Wyman - highlights the singer's seldom-seen sassy side.
Peyroux wrote the title track in the back of a bus in Spain around 5 in the morning.
"Everyone was asleep, the bus was parked, and I had a trap on the roof, so I crawled up on a chair or something, stuck my head out, and there was the highway raging by on one side of the bus, and on the other, a silhouetted forest of some kind and a few birds beginning to sing. . . . And for some reason there was this sort of half-chaos and half-peace that inspired me," she recalls.
For Peyroux, who started primarily as a cover artist, those moments of inspiration are framed through her musical forbears. For "Standing on the Rooftop," Peyroux looked to the likes of Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone, two artists who she says experimented with their sound even within the confines of mainstream pop music.
The album doesn't sound much like either of those artists, but it does bear the unmistakable stamp of a singer dedicated to looking backward and forward at the same time.
"I'm trying to look at the 20th century as a place to be informed for the 21st century," she says. "I'm going to continue on this same path."
--Jess Righthand, Sept. 30, 2011