Rufus Wainwright

Sharps & Flats is a weekly music review roundup in Salon Magazine


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Josh Kun
May 20, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

I never would have imagined that anyone even remotely related to Loudon Wainwright III, the world's crankiest living folk singer, could actually believe in love. But his openly gay 24-year-old son, Rufus Wainwright, not only believes in it, he structures his world around its complexities, frustrations and rewards.

On his self-titled debut of lushly crafted pop parlor songs (complete with Van Dyke Parks string arrangements), Wainwright poetically unfolds scenarios of foolish love and fantasy love, healing love and destructive love and love that makes you want to lose your sense of self just so you can find it again. "I don't want to hold you and feel so helpless," he confesses on "Foolish Love," "I don't want to smell you and lose my senses."

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No matter what accompanies the warm, chameleonlike creak and quiver of his voice -- acoustic guitar, cascading piano, crashing cymbals or thumping timpani -- Wainwright's songs are all built on a similar set of angled melodies and hairpin turns of phrase. Yet each succeeds as its own distinctly intimate portrait of emotion and desire, whether he's remembering the "charmingly daft" River Phoenix on "Matinee Idol" or offering desperate advice to the tragic opera heroes of "Damned Ladies," whose arias "cause a stir in my sad, sad and lonely heart." Wainwright's willingness to so thoroughly accept his vulnerability as a way of life is a rare thing among contemporary singer-songwriters. Rarer still is that his search for grace persists -- and once in a while, as in "Imaginary Love," he finds it: a red face, a head resting on a lap in the green back seat of a cab, and the knowledge that what's real can never be enough.

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Sean Lennon
INTO THE SUN | GRAND ROYAL
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BY DAWN EDEN | Sean Lennon's long-awaited debut album is a surprisingly low-key affair, dotted with Brazilian-inspired rhythms and languid vocals. There's also a strong low-fi sensibility, undoubtedly aided by producer Yuka Honda of Japanese dance-floor experimentalists Cibo Matto. Not coincidentally, Lennon is in love with Honda, and "Into the Sun" is an unabashed sonic valentine. The parallels between his ultra-close working relationship with Honda and that of his father and Yoko Ono are obvious. To Honda's credit, she proves capable of separating business and pleasure. Far from turning Lennon into a one-man Cibo Matto, she seems to have made every effort to bring out his own unique sound -- that is, inasmuch as he can be said to have one. His father aside, his main influence is Beck, and it shows in his use of analog synthesizers alongside prominent acoustic guitars. Also like Beck, he adores genre-jumping, giving nods to Stevie Wonder-style soul ("Two Fine Lovers"), tear-in-your-beer country ("Part One of the Cowboy Trilogy") and piano balladry (the mordant "Wasted").

Lennon's voice is an acquired taste. With a nasal twang that would make They Might Be Giants blush, he sings below the notes. His melodies, however, are intriguing: "Two Fine Lovers" and "Queue" are sublimely catchy, with unpredictable chord changes in the manner of Burt Bacharach and Brian Wilson. As "Into the Sun" demonstrates, the young Lennon will be a potent force in 21st century pop if he continues to follow his own star.

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Mekons
ME | QUARTERSTICK
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BY MARK ATHITAKIS | The Mekons never said it was going to be easy. Not life, not love and certainly not rock music, which the band dismissed as "something to sell your labor for/when hair sprouts out below" on their finest record, 1989's "Rock and Roll." But the Chicago band (via Leeds, England) was making great rock even while they were uncomfortable with its trappings, anxiously searching for justice and sanity in drums, guitar chords and wailing violins. Twenty years after they started as art-damaged punk rockers, nothing's changed, because the politics of rock haven't changed; their chosen trade is just as polluted with greed, sexism and mediocrity as it ever was.

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With all their deep thinking weighing down on the music, "Me" is rough going, both as rock album and political tract. Jumping from drum machine beats to country-folk to straightforward rock to absurdist lyrical rantings, it lacks the flow necessary to keep the deep thinking about sex and ego listenable; like most of the band's recent albums, it sprawls badly. But from song to song, each song signifies, whether it's Jon Langford's nursery-rhyme chanting over the shambling beat of "Tourette's," or Sally Timms' winsome vocals on the chirpy groove-pop "Mirror." Cynical, joking, frustrated and philosophical, it's post-structuralist pop for the next millennium.

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Joe Ely
TWISTIN' IN THE WIND | MCA
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BY MEREDITH OCHS | Anyone who's ever seen Joe Ely perform knows that he can captivate an audience with just an acoustic guitar and his gritty narratives, though he usually chooses to do so backed by a band that's equal parts punk and honky tonk. The venerable roots rocker from Lubbock, Texas, was part of the legendary triumvirate of Texas songwriting talent (along with friends Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock) known as the Flatlanders, embarking on a solo career in the late '70s that yielded a dozen albums. It's dismaying, though, that Ely's recorded output has often failed to reflect the dynamism of his live shows.

But No. 13 proves lucky for the singer/songwriter/guitarist. Recorded at his own Austin studio, the record is a satisfying amalgam of Ely's many musical loves and pursuits. He tells his stories through border waltzes, barroom romps, Tejano twang, Neil Young-style rockers, jazzy blues and flamenco-tinged ballads, while guitarists who have recorded with him over the years -- including David Grissom, Lloyd Maines and Jesse Taylor -- add layers of sound texture and Southwestern imagery. Like Ely kicking his boots in the dirt -- or on stage -- "Twistin' in the Wind" kicks hard.

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Dave Matthews Band
BEFORE THESE CROWDED STREETS | RCA
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BY LEORA BROYDO | Forget Viagra. "Before These Crowded Streets," the third studio album from the Dave Matthews Band, could make even Church Lady feel like a sexpot. The release, which might have been more aptly titled "Before These Crowded Stadiums," coincides with the start of DMB's 54-show U.S./European tour, which is selling out huge concert venues within minutes.

The album delivers more of what has always attracted fans to the band: the jazzy rhythms and spirit-raising jams that have become the DMB's stock and trade, as well as lyrical echoes of albums past; there's hungry Dave ("Open wide, oh so good I'll eat you"), thirsty Dave ("Let me drink you please, I won't spill a drop, I promise you") and, of course, merry Dave ("Come sister, my brother, shake up your bones, shake up your feet").

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If Matthews hikes up his skirt a little more here than on previous works, the world he shows us is deeper and darker than anything the band has laid down to date. Matthews takes his vocals to Araratian heights in "The Last Stop," an emotional plea for Middle Eastern peace. In "Don't Drink the Water," Matthews does an eerie impression of Peter Gabriel and grumbles about greed with an angry (is she ever anything else?) Alanis Morissette singing backup. "Halloween" is a demented carousel ride ` la Tom Waits, backed with disturbing horror movielike tracks by the Kronos Quartet.

Matthews says of the album's darker sentiments, "I don't think the overall effect will be depressing." He's right. Somehow, when Matthews engages any spirits, be them dark or light, it's a pleasurable experience.

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Scrawl
NATURE FILM | ELEKTRA
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BY GINA ARNOLD | Scrawl sings songs about the kind of things I care about, but though their harsh musical questioning of such common feelings as disillusionment, boredom and romantic regret can, at its best, banish one's self-doubt by putting it all into words, the Columbus, Ohio, band has somehow missed the jump onto every all-girl bandwagon (foxcore, riot grrrl, angry women rock and so forth) that's trolled by in the last 12 years. When I hear the low, rough-hewn voice of singer Marcy Mays set within these carefully crafted mid-tempo rock songs, I grieve at the knowledge that this stuff has no wide commercial appeal.

"Nature Film" is Scrawl's new LP, but six of the songs on it are old ones, re-recorded for reasons of clarity and distribution (since the albums they come from are now out of print). "Charles" is one of Scrawl's most famous tracks, a rewrite of Kiss' "Beth" on which Mays tells her boyfriend that although she'll be up all night playing with the band, he should wait up for sex. ("Put out or shut up/that's the way it goes.") It's much faster than the original, and still works well, as do "Rot" and "Clock Song." But the newer songs are the ones that show the most depth of feeling and emotional growth. "Standing Around" in particular is a lovely, heartfelt song about coming to terms with self-defeating mental stagnation, while "Nature Film" and "Guess I'll Wait" explore similarly poignant and -- to me -- relevant life-themes. The record also contains a cover of PiL's "Public Image." In short, Scrawl's not fit for Lilith Fair -- and more power to them for that.


Josh Kun

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