Hugh Laurie – Let Them Talk

January 01, 1970

(Warner Bros./Rhino)


There seems to a sudden rash of well-respected actors
releasing music – alongside Tim Robbins and Jeff Bridges, Hugh Laurie throws
his hat into the ring, though he does it from his piano bench rather than from behind
a guitar. The British actor – best known either from his role on the popular House or as part of the beloved comedy
team Fry & Laurie, depending on your perspective – has a very specific focus
on Let Them Talk, namely the deep
catalog of New Orleans jazz and rhythm & blues. Backed by producer Joe
Henry’s usual studio sidekicks, Laurie takes on everything from “Swanee River”
and “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” to “Tipitina” and “Police Dog Blues.”


There’s no faulting his musicianship, which is perfectly
competent, and his voice – a lot like Gregory House as a blues crooner – works
just fine. He certainly made no secret of his love for the material. But
competence and sincerity aren’t enough for this music – if he’s going to
subject the world to yet another version of “Saint James Infirmary,” Laurie
needs more than good intentions and basic skill to make it stand out. He may
adore these tunes, but he’s a little too stiff to get them across effectively. This
is especially obvious when he tries his hand at gospel – “The Whale Has
Swallowed Me” and “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” hit the right notes but
haven’t the faintest trace of the soul needed to make them soar. And his
version of Robert Johnson’s novelty throwaway “They’re Red Hot” is so turgid
it’s painful to hear.


It’s no accident that the best songs find Laurie joined by
Crescent City notables for whom these songs are second nature – “John Henry,”
with Irma Thomas, and “After You’ve Gone,” with Dr. John, sound genuinely
inspired in the hands of regular practitioners. Even Tom Jones sounds loose and
soulful on “Baby Please Make a Change.” Only on “Winin’ Boy Blues” does Laurie
sound relaxed, as if he’s having fun and not giving a recital. This is no
disaster on the level of, say, a Leonard Nimoy or Don Johnson album, but given
Laurie’s outspoken love for New Orleans and the involvement of Henry and his
crew, Let Them Talk still falls well
short of expectations.


You’ve Gone,” “John Henry,” “Winin’ Boy Blues” MICHAEL TOLAND

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