Madeleine Peyroux – Standing on the Rooftop

As she’s done throughout her career, Madeleine Peyroux continues to evolve on her fifth solo effort. Her songwriting has become more sophisticated and choice of covers more intelligent—perhaps even quirky—but it works well. Earlier this summer, a message on her Web site promised a “more roots oriented record,” and Standing on the Rooftop follows up on the pledge.

It starts with a slow, sparse rendition of the Beatles’ “Martha My Dear” that fortunately doesn’t set the vocal tone for the rest of the record. On the song, Peyroux stretches a bit too far, her voice straining to hit and hold the high notes. The next track, “The Kind You Can’t Afford,” picks up on a tempo that’s similar to that of the singer’s from Careless Love. But there’s a much funkier thing going on, thanks to virtuoso guitarist Mark Ribot and bassist Meshell Ndegeocello. As she lazily raps to a male friend, Peyroux jokes about him “cruising in a Mercedes” while she’s “broke down in a Ford.” (Speaking of disparity: It’s too bad Peyroux doesn’t give her poor friends that bought the $30 LP an included CD or download of the album.)

The remainder of the set dramatically slows down, as it’s rich with environmental texture and big, muddy drum beats with slow attack. While Ribot does not play guitar throughout, his influence is everywhere, as it adds a tonal complexity that feels like a soundtrack to a film that takes place in a rainy, desolate location. In the same way that you have to pay close attention to someone speaking softly in a room, the listener is forced to sidle up closely to the music. And we’ learn that we’re suddenly a long way from Careless Love. There are a few light spots, but this is a primarily dark ride.

Mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound, the two-LP, 33RPM set offers sound on par with Peyroux’s last two Mobile Fidelity LPs. Surfaces are exceptionally quiet, complementing her voice perfectly and allowing Ribot’s reverb-laden guitar to stretch out to infinity. Ndegeocello’s bass is full of rich overtones that perfectly translate, and infrequent bursts of percussion emerge across a very wide soundstage. Props to Peyroux for again taking an enthralling detour from a path she’s already traveled.

Decca, 2LP