Laura Ellis – Femme Fatale (2011)

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The deeply talented Laura Ellis gets going quickly on Femme Fatale, as if in midsentence, on the knowing and lightly ribald “I’ve Been Kissed Before.” As she sings a lyric about moving past previous relationships into new adventures, a brightly swinging horn section featuring Terry Harrington and Bob O’Donnell hit bright retorts, like a lover’s friendly quarrel. The mood — neon-lit, after midnight, not unlike a black-and-white private eye movie — is set.

In fact, each of the next nine tracks (like “I’ve Been Kissed Before,” from 1962’s “Affair in Trindad”) was originally featured in a noir film or television program. This was a world of quick-witted gumshoes, wide-fendered cars and smart-talking dames.

In that scenario, Ellis would be the sexy bird singing with the house band, distracting our hero to no end with her unerring ability to hit just the right balance between sultry and mysterious. She’s all of that, and more, starting with “Somewhere in the Night,” originally showcased on the “Naked City” television program from 1958-63. Ellis’ tender reading of the lyric is matched only by Harrington’s warmly inviting sax. Together, they construct an airtight melancholy.

Next, on “Again” (from the 1948 film “Road House”), John Rodby’s meandering piano leads Ellis deeper into the verse’s happy contentment, just before the realization hits — like a thunderclap — that the pair will never again meet. Her supple, Ella Fitzgerald-sounding vocal may be the most impressive found on Femme Fatale. She’s just as adept with the song’s soaring optimism as with its subsequent crushing defeat, no small accomplishment. Ellis then dives right into a dashing egotism of the ever-so-brief “I Want To Be Talked About,” from the 1946 movie “Black Angel,” sounding like one of those outsized movie stars of old. She may not have Bette Davis eyes, but she’s got her ’tude.

Then O’Donnell’s trumpet, lonely and clear, pulls Ellis up short for the title ballad from the 1944 picture “Laura.” Ellis seems to move closer in on the microphone, as her band performs with the quietest restraint. Drummer Mark Stevens is particularly notable, as he guides the song with nothing more than a whispering brush. “Blue Gardenia,” the title track from a 1953 film, pairs Stevens with bassist Harvey Newmark for the opening stanza, lending the proceedings a crepuscule emotion. But not for long. Rodby, who arranged Femme Fatale, Harrington and then a group of strings eventually join in, sending Ellis into a memorable swoon. It’s almost unbearably pretty at times, like Linda Ronstadt’s sides with the legendary arranger Nelson Riddle in the 1980s.

Just like that, though, Ellis is swinging again — this time on the bawdy “Put the Blame on Mame,” from 1946’s “Gilda.” Rather than cursing a clumsy cow for Chicago’s famous fire, the lyric suggests that a too-hot kiss was the spark. Ellis swings with Rodby, skipping just ahead of his urgent runs at the keyboard, like a seasoned jazz veteran. “This Bitter Earth,” the newest entry on Femme Fatale, comes from the 1981 film “Killer of Sheep.” Here, Ellis sounds something like a combination of Nancy Wilson and Dionne Warwick, combining an urbane R&B with a fine syncopation.

Alas, Ellis’ album closer — “Trinidad Lady,” from 1952’s “Affair in Trinidad” — is its only stumble. The tune’s “chica-chick boom” signature is too gimmicky, too of its time, and that ultimately takes away from the intriguingly layered, Latin-flavored composition that follows. (Stevens, again, is a wonder — goading his confederates along through a series of sudden starts and stops without ever losing a beat.) Still, after what came before, that doesn’t come close to sinking Ellis’ impressive showing on Femme Fatale.

Put simply, she possesses the range to sing just about anything, noir or not.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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