Madeleine Peyroux--a 24-year-old woman born in New Orleans and raised in both Brooklyn and Paris (but of course)--raises all sorts of authenticity issues, the kind that make LeAnn Rimes look like the first off the assembly line and the Squirrel Nut Zippers sound like they just invented this little thing called jazz. Peyroux's a beautiful young white girl whose harsh and husky voice copies every Billie Holiday breath and Edith Piaf affectation; the only people born to sound like that are long dead. The track listing off her 1996 debut, Dreamland, reads like a musicologist's compilation tape: There's "Walking After Midnight," "La Vie en Rose," "Reckless Blues" and "Lovesick Blues" (two Bessie Smith compositions), and "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter." At least there's no "You Light Up My Life."
But don't be thrown off by her obsessions: Peyroux--who, for her debut, rounded up the likes of Marc Ribot, Vernon Reid, James Carter, Cyrus Chestnut, and a host of other top-notch frontmen to act as her sessionmen--has the talent and passion that allow Dreamland to transcend its influences and become its own singular entity. You can hear it in her voice, in her own compositions ("Hey Sweet Man" is all blues; "Dreamland" and "Always a Use" are postmodern pop-folk nuggets found in some dark Tin Pan Alley), in the breathtaking and even haunting arrangements, in her sad and high lonesome phrasing.
It's one thing to rise to fame mimicking Patsy Cline, as LeAnn Rimes did; after all, country audiences are easily fooled into accepting a frighteningly way-too-grown-up-looking teenage girl as the reincarnation of their high priestess. But unlike Rimes, who mimics her icon's voice but not her emotions, Peyroux inhabits her voice despite the fact it sounds like someone else's. She wears it like tattered leather, pulling off the heartbreaking dirge ("A Prayer") and the giddy romp ("Letter") with fine ease and grace. Only when she sings a song such as "Muddy Water" does she come off as a put-on: Moaning about her "Mississippi Delta home" where she "don't got no shelta," Peyroux joins Gillian Welch as a singer trying to capture history instead of trying to interpret it, which begs the question: Is Peyroux a growing artist or a living artifact? Right now, both.
Either way, Peyroux's a far more intriguing performer than Sarah McLachlan, who is best known, for the moment, as the woman who proved you could make a touring buck during the dry-spell summer. But don't believe the hype: Lilith Fair succeeded because of what it wasn't (yet another Monster of Rock tour repackaged for the post-alternarock crowd) and not because of what it was (a bill featuring female singer-songwriters so similar-sounding it might as well have been a one-woman show). McLachlan was always this close to being this close to stardom; just because she landed on a couple of magazine covers doesn't mean she ought to become one now.
Sarah McLachlan and Madeleine Peyroux perform October 8 at the Bronco Bowl.