Recorded at the Parish Church of Saint Mary the Virgin in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, England, Madeleine Peyroux's eighth studio album, 2016's Secular Hymns, finds the vocalist/guitarist delivering a stripped-down, largely acoustic set of warm, eclectic cover tunes. Backing Peyroux this time out are guitarist/vocalist Jon Herington and bassist/vocalist Barak Mori, both highly sought-after New York-based musicians with deep jazz, blues, and rock credits. While technically a studio album, Secular Hymns was recorded as if a live concert, a choice inspired by Peyroux's 2015 performance at the venue.
As Madeleine Peyroux has made plain in recent years, small venues feel most like home to her. Peyroux brought her regular guitarist Jon Herington and bassist Barak Mori to a 200-seater 12th-century Oxfordshire church (hence the title) for this recording of classic songs from composers as different as Tom Waits, Allen Toussaint, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and 19th-century American songwriter Stephen Foster. Mori’s big, growling sound and Herington’s gleaming rejoinders and scampering runs surround the singer on Eric Clapton’s Got You on My Mind; she delivers Waits’s Tango Till They’re Sore with a sardonic intimacy, and Townes Van Zandt’s The Highway Kind as an introverted speculation that makes her signature upturns of resolving notes sound as natural as talking.
Madeleine Peyroux takes on some of the best of the best music here; not the Great American Songbook, but the underground classics that speak vibrantly about one’s passions and vices. Let me be straight: there are few performances in history as good as Lee Dorsey gurgling Allen Toussaint’s “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On)”, Sister Rosetta Tharpe wailing on “Shout Sister Shout”, or Tom Waits snaking through his Dada poetry on “Tango Till They’re Sore”, not to mention oft-recorded dark treasures like Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More”, the traditional ode to hoboing for the lord, “Trampin’”, and the blues number “If the Sea Was Whiskey” (better known as “If the River was Whiskey”). Lesser singers might feel intimidated by the high quality of the performances that came before, but Peyroux’s renditions come off as inspired.