[Ed. note: Josh Hurst has written often and eloquently about the work of Joe Henry (he is prominently linked in the "Essential Reading" column of this blog). From my perspective, Josh is the world's foremost authority on all things JH. About a year ago, he ceased maintenance of his wonderful music review blog, The Hurst Review. So it is my great honor to present his extensive review for Hugh Laurie's new record Didn't It Rain (released in the UK in May and hopefully in the US very soon). Many thanks to Mr. Hurst for the contribution – enjoy!]
Didn’t it Rain—the second album of American blues and folk songs from Hugh Laurie—begins with a performance of “The St. Louis Blues”—but I will caution you in advance that it does not contain anywhere close to all of the song’s sung verses. If you want to hear the song sprawled out in all its glory, I recommend an album called Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, where Satch gives us a “St. Louis Blues” for the ages. Here, only two sung verses appear, following an extended instrumental prologue that imagines the song as gleeful Dixieland—swinging harder than anything on the first Hugh Laurie album (something that could be said about the entirety of Didn’t it Rain, just about) and rocking and rolling harder than most anything that passes for rock and roll these days.
When the first vocals do enter the song, they pick up on one of the middle verses, and it first it seems like an odd way to begin a record—not with anything that really resembles a beginning at all, but rather sounding as though we’re coming in on the middle of a conversation. Which, of course, we are: This is a song that is nearly 100 years old, and Laurie and his band are picking up where the song was left off. They are taking their verses just as rightly and freely as Louis did on W.C. Handy; others, I am quite sure, will follow, grabbing the thread from Laurie and adding their own perspectives to the song’s rich legacy.
There are other ways in which Didn’t it Rain sounds like it picks up where something was left off. It advances the central argument of Laurie’s first album, Let Them Talk, which was that Hugh Laurie is legit, and that he has as much grounds to sing these songs as Louis Armstrong, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Frank Sinatra, or Mick Jagger. But if the first record was a platform for Hugh Laurie, Didn’t it Rain assumes the matter of his blues cred more or less settled, and instead functions as a platform for, and a celebration of, the music that he so loves.
There is no other way to explain this album’s utter egolessness—the way in which Laurie surrounds himself with such a colorful parade of “guest singers,” guests who sometimes overshadow their host, who seems quite happily to cede the spotlight and disappear into the music. (And to think some would have us believe that these albums are vanity projects—whatever that even means.) There is also no other way to explain the festive mood and careening energy here; the handsome and regal Let Them Talk was and is a fine album, but hearing it in the context of this new one almost makes it seem a bit academic by comparison. That album was an act of discovery; this one, a celebration.
It’s a celebration—a real rager—that’s been going on for more than a century, and it picks up here midway through the aforementioned “St. Louis Blues,” where the first words are sung not by Hugh Laurie but by Sister Jean McClain. She can sing the hell out of any gospel or blues or whatever-else song you care to name, and she knocks a couple of tracks out of the park here. She is joined by a stunning singer from Guatemala, Gabby Moreno, who does a coy bilingual duet with Laurie on “Kiss of Fire” (the furthest we venture outside of Let Them Talk’s narrower focus on classic New Orleans blues, I think) and nearly steals the album with a smoldering and astonishing “The Weed Smoker’s Dream.” It’s my early vote for album highlight, and that’s saying something, because Taj Mahal is also here, singing a song that he loves, “Vicksburg Blues.” He does it with warm, easygoing authority—owning the song but not overpowering it, rather savoring and cherishing the very act of signing it, which in a way captures the spirit of Didn’t it Rain as well as anything else included on it.
I should also mention that Hugh Laurie is working once again with producer Joe Henry; this is Laurie’s second LP and also the second that he has made with Joe, and already it is impossible for me to imagine that there could ever be a Hugh Laurie album without Joe Henry’s name somewhere on it. I would sooner believe that Wes Anderson might make a movie without Bill Murray. They work well together, and I think it’s because they’re united behind a shared worldview—one in which it is simply impossible to have too many versions of “The St. Louis Blues” or “Careless Love,” no matter how many thousands of times they’ve both been performed, and to suggest otherwise is simply baffling.
And sure enough: When the parade of songs and singers slows a bit in the album’s more leisurely second half, Laurie lends his own voice to a take on “Careless Love,” and it’s a delight. We have heard the song many times before, but we have never heard it sung by Hugh Laurie, and that makes this version worthwhile—more than that, priceless. He doesn’t reinvent it but rather mines it for further revelation—revelation being something in no short supply, on this or any other song on the album—and brings out tenderness that’s disarming and wonderful.
Laurie also sings lead on a spritely and soulful version of “Junker’s Blues” and the intoxicated, and intoxicating, “Wild Honey,” two songs that have “The Weed Smoker’s Dream” between them—and it that makes it sound like there is an awful lot of narcotic use and mental impairment on this record, it’s because there is, and why shouldn’t there be? Didn’t it Rain is a party, after all—a jubilant testimony to the sweet seduction of love and heartache, music and drink, all manner of holy vices.
Laurie sings a song called “Evenin,’” as well, and no song on the record does more to make Let Them Talk feel like a warm-up lap. On that album, Laurie and Henry shook the dust off these old tunes, but here the music struts and swaggers, Laurie growls like he is having the time of his life, and in the middle of the song there’s an explosion of reeds that seems to take its cue from Henry’s own albums Tiny Voices and Blood from Stars—what more could we ask for, from this or any other record?
At the end of the record, Laurie does “One for My Baby,” and his version takes the song back from the saloons; when Sinatra sang it for Only the Lonely, he was tortured, but Laurie sounds comfortable, even content with the melancholy. (This, I am coming to think, is one of his great gifts as an interpretive singer; there is real warmth and joy even on songs of sadness and desolation—and I think the joy comes from the sheer act of singing.)
Then Sister Jean has a showstopper with “I Hate a Man Like You” before Laurie unveils the album’s neatest trick: Following a dozen songs that are plucked from the backpages of American song, polished up and made to sound like they could have been written yesterday, Laurie takes a comparatively newer number—Alan Price’s “Changes”—and makes it sound like a traditional Mardis Gras number. Yes, the mood is, once more, a festive one—but if the lyric is about people going through changes, I rather think Laurie is celebrating the songs that stay with us through thick and thin. This is a party decades in the making, and Didn’t it Rain only gives us further reason to rejoice and be glad.