Album Review: Hugh Laurie – Didn’t It Rain

[Warner Bros; 2013]

For anyone who has been following Hugh Laurie through his career, the news back in 2011 that he was set to release an album shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Laurie has always been openly musical, and fortune had it that in his most famous roles on television he was able to let this show. In his most famous role as Dr. Gregory House he played a character that was almost as expertly talented with the piano and guitar as he was medical diagnostics, whereas he has plenty of lastingly amusing songs from his ’90s TV sketch show series A Bit Of Fry And Laurie. Even as Bertie Wooster in Jeeves & Wooster from the same decade he had a fruitful fondness of the piano and Laurie took his character to the show’s soundtrack to help along some swinging numbers. And if he wasn’t performing, he was certainly letting his love of music – specifically the blues – come slyly into the picture. His first musical outing on A Bit Of Fry And Laurie played off the lounge style of Sammy Davis Jr. while the theme music for the first series was a track by New Orleans musicians Professor Longhair.

So when Let Them Talk arrived two years back, it kind of felt like something that was a long time coming, if not a pleasingly executed crescendo in Laurie’s varied musical career. The whole thing was somewhat excessive, but understandably so: when offered the opportunity to play the songs you love with musicians you also have a great admiration of, you’re hardly going to say no, let alone remain modest. Laurie’s return with a new album isn’t particularly surprising either, especially when you consider he followed the release of Let Them Talk with a world tour that only brought him closer to his band (The Copper Bottom Band); that he wanted to get down another healthy-sized dose of musical goodness seemed on the books from the first tour date.

With his new album, though, Laurie has sought to step back from the limelight and also to wander into other musical territories. Didn’t It Rain is guest-heavy, and subsequently it can often be easy to forget you’re listening to a Hugh Laurie album; of the thirteen tracks, he only takes up solo vocal duties on five. Most of the time you’ll hear Laurie plinking away at the piano or plucking the guitar, tucked inside his band, if not elevated just slightly above them. It would have been more accurate to label the album “By Hugh Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band.”

But at this point the main problem about Didn’t It Rain presents itself: the band (Laurie included) remains unexciting and unadventurous for the majority of the album’s runtime. While they may be a cohesive unit, far too often they sound like they’re being polite, playing gently and calmly. Of course, this is fine when you’re playing the blues (it can’t all be Jack White guitar solos), but in opening up his palette, Laurie and his band had the opportunity to open themselves up as musicians – an opportunity they let pass by them too often. On “Wild Honey” there’s a great and far too brief moment when an electric guitar and trumpet start playing off each other, but they barely raise their voice, like the players are retracting in embarrassment after a note or two, all made worse by the rumbling build during the rest of the track that seeks to release the tension. The exceedingly peppy title track follows suit, with a solo that sits far away from the exuberant vocal performances of Jean McClain and Gaby Moreno while even the lulling “Careless Love” (this album’s “Let Them Talk,” where the softer range of Laurie’s voice starts to reveal itself) makes Vincent Henry’s harmonica and Kevin Breit’s electric slide guitar sound sleepy.

The forays into new musical territory make for some interesting results. Opening track “The St. Louis Blues” echoes the wonderfully grand opening to Let Them Talk, with an extended instrumental opening that this time goes from lonely blues guitar vibrato, to a waltzy stomp, before skipping back to the blues with a light-hearted swagger. “Kiss of Fire” is a strangely alluring tango number where Laurie and Moreno trade verses (in Spanish and English, naturally) that sounds like a Disney villain trying to seduce the movie’s damsel. They play off each other pleasantly, but when they mix their languages, the whole thing sounds cumbersome; and when Moreno reverts to English, her pronunciation is wonderful but it seems like an easy compromise. The aforementioned title track is a bit of sore thumb, too, full of gospel back and forths between the singers that just sounds way too excitable to be here.

It sounds like pigeonholing, but pretty much every other track is easy to imagine on the album that preceded it, as Laurie and his band wander through the blues standards, occasionally putting a flicker of interest into the mix. However, musically, compared the Let Them Talk, these tracks are toned down – polite and played safe, as mentioned earlier. There are moments of joy, where the whole band comes together. “Vicksburg Blues” chugs along like a steam engine gaining momentum (though Taj Mahal’s gritty voice might not be for everyone, especially for four and half minutes) while “Changes” picks up pleasingly in the latter half, where band kind of sound like they’re having a party (though the whistle might be a bit much).

But not only are there moments where the band loses face to the singer or basic melody, there are also those which just fall flat. “Junker Blues” might well be Laurie cheekily nodding to his drug-using House character, but it’s hard to imagine anyone ever accusing Laurie of “[using] a needle” or “[sniffing] cocaine,” especially when he’s pleasantly telling the barman to get a drink for himself on the easily forgettable “One For My Baby.” “I Hate A Man Like You” and “Send Me To The ‘Lectric Chair” seem to try and catch a Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald-like moment of singularity, but Jean McClain’s voice verges of trying too hard, backed by a track that could do well to try and fight her for the spotlight.

Laurie’s a hard fellow to dislike, though. He’s a perfectly amicable personality on stage and positively gentlemanly otherwise, but here we rarely catch sight of that. On bonus track “Unchain My Heart” he sounds at one with everything around him, sitting comfortably into the production which helps to create atmosphere (and which is arguably also a bit guilty of trying to stuff too much into the picture). It’s great that he’s given up the spotlight to make this a more collaborative album and let other voices shine (Moreno is positively sultry and soothing on “The Weed Smoker’s Dream”), and also that he’s continuing to explore the music he loves, but here the initial excitement seems to have faded, and we have something which suffers from being misbranded and somewhat oversold before hitting the shelves. Arguably Warner Bros. are to blame, trying sell Laurie as an image instead of what he wants to represent, all in an increasingly excessive deluxe package. But of course, when it comes down to it, it’s just a case that Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band created another collection of songs that don’t light much of a fire. As said, a second album with Hugh Laurie in the leading role isn’t surprising. Rather, it’s surprising how unaffecting and mediocre most of it is.