Latter-day singers

New music from Rufus Wainwright and his little sister, Martha. Plus: A free post-"Grey Album" remix from Danger Mouse.

Published July 14, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

Last week, I featured a song by Low and asked if there were any other great Mormon bands out there. In response, I got loads of informative e-mails, with recommendations ranging from the classic (the Osmonds), to the arcane (did you know Mick Ronson was a Mormon?), to the very strange indeed (the Aquabats, a ska group that is, I'm told, "big on the West Coast skanking scene"). I haven't yet heard anything I like as much as Low, but there's still a lot I haven't had a chance to listen to. Of all the Mormon musicians you've recommended, the band I've enjoyed most so far is Landing, which happens to make music in a similar vein to Low's. They have some free MP3s posted on their Web site. I was also alerted to the existence of Orson's Telescope, a blog devoted to Mormon pop culture.

A number of readers pointed out that Low has excellent songs available for free download on their Web site. So if you enjoyed "Venus" last week, check out Low's audio section: This is a band whose entire catalogue is worth hearing. And more music by Elysian Fields (a band that I currently play with) has become available in the last week: "Shooting Stars" is now a free download on Better Propaganda, and the band has made "Live for the Touch," a haunting ballad, available for free on their Web page.

"This Love Affair" and "Waiting for a Dream," Rufus Wainwright, from "Waiting for a Want" EP
The follow-up to Wainwright's 2003 "Want One," originally slated for release this spring or summer, has been postponed until fall or possibly early next year -- why, I have no idea, but I suspect it might have to do with poor sales of "Want One," which, despite flashes of brilliance, is his weakest release yet. The aptly titled "Waiting for a Want" EP, a four-song iTunes exclusive, was released a few weeks ago to satisfy impatient fans (like me). Two of the songs aren't worth your time: "Gay Messiah," enjoyable lyrical conceit aside, is just boring, while "The Art Teacher" would be lovely if it weren't for the clumsy, literal-minded lyrics, doubly disappointing coming from a writer as poetic as Wainwright. But "This Love Affair" is the musician at his most unabashedly operatic, a lovesick, moonlit aria, with plenty of chances for his glorious tenor, which keeps getting richer as he grows older, to stretch out. And "Waiting for a Dream" (notwithstanding the obnoxious echo effect on Wainwright's voice) combines his pseudo-classical aesthetic with down-tempo electronic pop, like some of the better songs on 2001's "Poses" -- as well as providing assurance that his narcissism (and wit) remain intact. ("Yesterday I heard they cloned a baby/ Now can I finally sleep with me?") (iTunes)

"BMFA," Martha Wainwright, from "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole" EP
I've long been a fan of Rufus' younger sister, Martha, and I remain mystified that, with her enviable combination of talent and connections, she doesn't have a record contract. She's not (yet) her brother's equal as a writer, but she's an inspired vocalist and performer, with an ever-shifting, semi-improvisational style that sometimes recalls the speaking-in-tongues-like intensity and unpredictability of the great Mary-Margaret O'Hara. It's not just O'Hara that I hear in her voice, though, which contains elements of many of the great female voices in popular music -- Billie Holiday's rhythmic playfulness, Emmylou Harris' rasp, Björk's vocal acrobatics and much more. Sadly, as I've already lamented in this column, her production and arrangement aesthetic is one of utterly boring, middle-of-the-road folk rock, and her new self-released EP (co-produced by Martha with bassist Brad Albetta) doesn't come close to doing these songs justice. The arrangements are completely lifeless, and Wainwright sounds boxed in by them, stifled. Still, I think she's one of the most exciting young talents out there, and I'm sticking with my prediction that she'll be a star sometime in the near future. "BMFA" isn't my favorite composition here (that would be "When the Day Is Short"), but it's the one in which Wainwright's natural vitality is least diminished. Free Download: "BMFA"

"Somersault," Danger Mouse & Zero 7, featuring MF Doom, single
I've been skeptical of Danger Mouse, as I would be of anyone who shot to stardom on the strength of a gimmick. The concept of "The Grey Album" is undeniably clever, and Danger Mouse's skill in making it work is impressive, but I didn't find the result all that enjoyable to listen to -- an extreme example of the whole being considerably less than the sum of its illustrious (the Beatles' "White Album" + Jay Z's "Black Album") parts. Mostly, I was just rankled by the amount of mainstream press coverage the record received (notably in the New York Times), all because of the great story and the clever concept, not because of the music. But there's no point holding a grudge (particularly since none of this was Danger Mouse's fault), and his remix of Zero 7's "Somersault," from the band's recent "When It Falls," is great. The track has a nice laid-back trip-hop feel to it, and MF Doom's lazy, deceptively simple rapping is mesmerizing. Free Download: "Somersault"

"Certified," Diverse, from "Certified"
What? Two underground hip-hop tracks in one week? As you've probably noticed, when hip-hop is featured in this column, it tends to be hip-hop of the mainstream variety. There are two reasons for this: First, not much good underground hip-hop is available for download -- it doesn't seem to be part of the culture for artists to make a few MP3s available for free download, and the digital music vendors carry almost no underground hip-hop. Second, from the perspective of a casual, not particularly knowledgeable hip-hop observer (that's me) it appears that commercial, mainstream hip-hop is soundly thrashing the underground, not just (obviously) in terms of popularity, but in quality as well. With a handful of exceptions (like Madvillain, Mike Ladd, cLOUDDEAD) I haven't heard any recent underground hip-hop that can compete with the music being made by artists like Timbaland, the Neptunes, Kanye West, OutKast and Cee-lo. Why that is I don't really know, but I imagine it has something to do with the way that the majority of the hip-hop underground's response to the bling-bling world of commercial hip-hop has been not to push forward into more experimental territory, but to retreat into a reactionary position, advocating a return to the "authentic" roots of hip-hop. In any case, the relative dearth of great underground hip-hop is why it's so exciting to hear a track like this, a collaboration between Chicago rapper Diverse and producer RJD2 (whose recent album, "Since We Last Spoke," is highly recommended to anyone who likes downbeat electronic music or instrumental hip hop -- and is available for download on iTunes). RJD2's beat, which sounds like it's assembled from chopped-up bits of '70s funk guitar and keyboards, is great, but it's Diverse's rhythmic playfulness that really grabs my attention: The way he snakes in and around the beat, jumping ahead or behind it at will, dropping accents in the most unexpected places, is thrilling. Free Download: "Certified"

"The Diver," Gravenhurst, from "Flashlight Seasons"
I sometimes wonder what all the people making very obviously Nick Drake-derived music -- fingerpicked acoustic guitar, whispery vocals, abstract mournful lyrics, Celtic-style modal harmonies and melodies, overall mood of fragile melancholy -- would be doing if there weren't Drake's example to follow. They'd probably just sit at home crying. Seriously, though, did Drake just hit on such a potent sound (the musical archetype of loneliness and melancholy?) that anything remotely in that vein unavoidably (whether fairly or not) seems to reference his music? Or would all of this haunted, mopey music really not exist without his example? Perhaps that's a topic for a future article. Nick Talbot, who records as Gravenhurst, is among the more obviously Drake-inspired songwriters out there, and this song captures the vibe perfectly: intimate, haunting, moving, and just this side of self-indulgent melodrama. Free Download: "The Diver"

By Thomas Bartlett

Thomas Bartlett is a writer and musician in New York. He maintains a blog called doveman.

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