Beauty Gone Public

by Josef Woodard

WORLDLY/LOCAL WOES: Oh mama, can this really be the end — to be stuck inside Santa Barbara with those Beverly Hills blues again? On a bad day in this town, it seems the place is sinking into the seething eddies of affluence, arrogance, and ignorance. Santa Barbara long-timers and lifers (sentenced to a life spent here, convinced that anywhere else on the planet would pale by comparison) wonder how the place became so alien.

How is it, for instance, that so much ill-informed negative public energy has been aimed at the inspiring State of the Art Gallery public art program, which has boldly (but not too boldly) placed provocative (but not too provocative) sculptures along State Street? How is it possible that the huffy honchos at McDonald’s have taken offense at Colin Gray’s harmless “W,” which is more about George W. Bush than McDonald’s? The corporation ought to cut a check to Gray for selecting their logo as a universally understood visual emblem, and for supplying the fat food … er, fast food, chain with free publicity and even bogus martyrdom bragging rights.

(It is true that McDonald’s and Bush share top billing among things Americans abroad often apologize for to their non-American acquaintances, but that’s another subject.)

SONGBIRD’S CROOKED FLIGHT: Those who have heard the buzz about Madeleine Peyroux louder than the music itself might experience twinges of perfectly reasonable doubt, given the nature of hype and next-big-thing phenoms. But once you’ve really heard Peyroux, and really gotten her, you have to succumb to the growing love fest. She’s the real deal, a singer with something to say, and a way of saying it that dips deeply into history while sneaking through some secret passageway to the present and even the future. She’s got it all covered, but acts like a busker who just came in from the cold with a pocket full of wisdoms she picked up on her travels.

Basically, Peyroux is not the next big thing, but the next small and subtle thing, who undersells herself even to the point of sometimes seeming diffident. Her periodic Billie Holiday-esque mannerisms — yes, there’s no mistaking them — are assets, not liabilities. She inhabits those nuances and swoops around a note or phrase to beguiling and personalized ends. She also taps into the quavering vulnerability of Lady Day in her own, more folky patois.

Last year, Peyroux suddenly found herself in a fast lane of touring and selling her fabulous Careless Love album, and this after having her 1996 major label debut slip quickly into obscurity. Now comes her next step, Half the Perfect World (Rounder), and another tour, which brings her back to Campbell Hall next Wednesday. A year ago, Peyroux played in this hall, fresh off the Monterey Jazz Festival, and she projected the fragile persona and depths we’ve already come to love about her.

Half the Perfect World is an album that draws you in on first listen, and draws you ever deeper on each successive spin. This album is chock-full of haunting, beautiful, and affirmative stuff, opening with the reassuring “I’m All Right,” but then posing melancholic questions on songs like the new Leonard Cohen gem “Blue Alert” and the title cut, cult hero Serge Gainsbourg’s swirly waltz “La Javanaise,” and a fresh version of Joni Mitchell’s classic “River” (in duet with k.d. lang, who sings in big tones compared to Peyroux’s softer but equally powerful ones). Her woozy version of “Everybody’s Talking” lends that song a new patina of mystery. Ditto the dreamy closer, a take on Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.” The album’s production is simple and clean, often built around Peyroux’s supple rhythm guitar and sometimes colored by discreet orchestrations, but always sensitive to the heart of the matter — Peyroux’s entrancing way with a song.

After getting lost in Peyroux, the world of the Bushes and McDonald’s seem a world away. That’s entertainment, of the deep sort. (Got e?

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