In 1996, when Norah Jones was still singing for her supper in Preston Royal, Madeleine Peyroux came from nowhere (New York, actually, by way of Paris by way of Georgia) and disappeared just as quickly, so fazed by critical acclaim she discovered she preferred street-corner anonymity. Her Atlantic debut, Dreamland, had critics doing the math (Billie Holiday + Patsy Cline x Edith Piaf) and making her a star, so naturally she's an unknown. Alas, she was Norah before Norah--a post-mod throwback making torch-jazz-folk-pop-a-country-blues as comfy as a silk blanket and as cozy as a Connecticut Christmas morning--making Peyroux a throwback years ahead of her time.
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Peyroux strums guitar, and Jones plinks piano, but the comparisons aren't so off: Peyroux co-wrote one song here with Jones' bandmate and collaborator Jesse Harris and, like Norah, covers Dylan ("You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome") without smothering him. But Jones is as much soft rock as she is lite jazz; she puts the "pop" in popular, which is why the whole family (except the son in Chuck Taylors) digs her. Peyroux, on her solo disc and the collaborative affair with harmonica player William Galison, is far less Roberta Flack's 1970s than she is W.C. Handy's 1930s and '40s, hence the Josephine Baker ("J'ai Deux Amours") and Bessie Smith ("Careless Love") and Hank Williams ("Weary Blues") and Jerome Kern ("The Way You Look Tonight") and Billie Holiday ("This Is Heaven to Me") covers that dominate these two beguiling discs. She's capable of the surprise--on Careless Love she turns Elliott Smith's "Between the Bars" into something that sounds like it was written during the heyday of the Weimar Republic and renders Leonard Cohen palatable in ways Jennifer Warnes never imagined--but keeps the novel from playing like novelty or, for that matter, sounding like Diana Krall opening the Great American Songbook and dousing it with a wine spritzer.