Monday, May 06, 2013

House call

There is probably a medical term for an aversion to medical dramas on television.

Whatever it is, it has steadfastly kept me away from Casualty, Holby City, Grey's Anatomy and Chicago Hope, and were it not for Sherry Stringfield and Julianna Margulies I might never have glanced at E.R.

Even though Scrubs and M*A*S*H provided acceptable yuks amongst the yuck, hospital dramas contain just a little too much human frailty for my liking. Which raises questions about what drew me to House.

On paper - actually, in reality - I should have shied away from it. The premise of a crippled misanthrope with Conan Doyle allusions (yes, we get it - he lives at No. 221 and he pops pills) should have had me running for the hills. An English actor - Hugh Laurie - playing an American, replete with American accent to boot, should have had me screaming on my way to the hills.

But having caught one, and discovered that Laurie's blues-loving, dysfunction-seeking, manchild bad boy doctor was actually one of the funniest characters on TV, I soon managed to lose my hangups about both medical dramas and English actors trying to do American accents (don't worry, Americans trying to do English accents is an even faster accelerant to my temper), and have become hooked, like a Vicodin addict, on House.

Via iTunes I have been ploughing my way through the seasons, blissfully ignoring the fact that, structurally, every episode is the same (lead patient with hard to diagnose condition; quirky second patient; gratuitous references to Cuddy's cleavage; mention of Lupus in every diagnosis discussion; Wilson apparently the only other doctor on duty in the hospital;).

But though House made an international star of Laurie, not to mention the highest-earning actor in American television, his name can still draw a blank. But say "Dr. House", and there will be an instant flash of recognition. The same applies to Laurie's Blackadder co-star Rowan Atkinson: "Mr. Bean!" has replaced "Bobby Charlton!" and "Benny Hill!" as the standard term of appreciation of all things British for those with no grasp at all of the English language.

So, hats off to Hugh. Over eight seasons of House, Laurie has animated one of television's most memorable creations. And, if you notice the occasional flashes of his musical talents - House playing blues on the Princeton–Plainsboro's lecture theatre piano, or cranking out the Ritchie Blackmore on his Gibson Flying V - you may also notice that it is Laurie himself performing.

House undoubtedly provided Laurie with a platform for his 2011 debut album Let Them Talk, a genuinely loving homage to New Orleans blues and jazz, with contributions from the Crescent City's own celebrity doctor, Dr. John, as well as Tom Jones, who is not known for his medical skills but does have a deep voice, copious chest hair and the ability to collect women's underwear while performing on stage.

Quite rightly, Let Them Talk garnered good reviews, out of surprise, perhaps, for some reviewers, caught unawares that a mostly comic actor could also be a very accomplished musician (as WWDBD? noted in Criminal Records, the history of album-making actors isn't a happy one). And thus Laurie - now post-House - returns with a follow-up album, Didn't It Rain.

The formula hasn't been changed: it's another collection of entries from the blues and jazz songbooks, but with somewhat less emphasis on the Big Easy sound, and a little more flavour of the blues found further up the Mississippi, such as Jelly Roll Morton's I Hate A Man Like You, and covers of Dr. John's Wild Honey, Alan Price's Changes (once the tune accompanying a building society advert, if I recall) and Georgie Fame's Yeh, Yeh.

Conversely, the opening track, a cover of WC Handy's St. Louis Blues, is pure Dixieland trad, much the same, in fact, as Laurie's treatment of Changes. Kansas Joe McCoy's The Weed Smoker's Dream - last breathily aired by Jessica Rabbit… - is authentically faithful to the original.

If there's one real complaint about Didn't It Rain, however, it's that it doesn't feel like Laurie has stretched himself as much as you feel he could have done. When Laurie does let go of the safety of tradition, the impact is noticeably better. On Unchain My Heart he brings the 80s FM radio stodge Joe Cocker made of it to something closer to the stabbing soul of Ray Charles' version. Yeh, Yeh, on the other hand, feels like no more than a party piece added onto the album for good measure, but then with Laurie such an exceptional blues pianist, he's entitled to show off a little.

Produced again by Joe Henry (another roots auteur, the 'new' T-Bone Burnett and the man responsible for Billy Bragg's excellent Tooth And Nail), Didn’t It Rain is a tad undemanding. Maybe it's the material, maybe it's the treatment.

Let It Talk felt genuine, a sincere tribute to a genre Laurie clearly adores. The blues is a broad church, and there have been plenty of mainstream rock and pop acts who've produced their own blues covers albums wthout anywhere near the personal love of the form Laurie brings to bear. And, to his credit, he has avoided the obvious reference points of Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters, and stuck to his somewhat eclectic interest in the New Orleans branch of the blues line.

On this follow-up, the sincerity doesn't come across anywhere near as strongly and does feel like more of the same. Some tracks, too - while proficiently performed - are a little too perfectly formed, giving parts of Didn't It Rain the feeling of a West End musical soundtrack. These are, it must be said, niggles. Laurie's recording career has thus far proven to have cogency than many, if not most, albums made by stars in their ascendancy, even if - to British television audiences at least - Laurie's star has been ascendent for a very long time.

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