"Release the Stars," Rufus Wainwright
It's appropriate that Rufus Wainwright appears in the booklet accompanying his new album dressed in monogrammed lederhosen, because "Release the Stars" is pop music that's arch and made on a Wagnerian scale. And where Wainwright's early albums stuck close to the complementary themes of going out and getting laid, his new album finds the 33-year-old broadening his lyrical vision to match the sumptuous splendor of the music. He may still sing about going out and getting laid, but he now does it in language more befitting an opera than the gossip pages. "Stars" is Rufus gone mega.
Thankfully, Wainwright's got enough lyrical cheek and musical wit to avoid having his self-aggrandizing feel bloated or boring. Though it's slightly disconcerting to hear him sing about smashing an ex-lover's bloody skull ("Do I Disappoint You") or how he's grown "so tired of America" ("Going to Town"), the way his sophisticated melodies are borne aloft by a massive orchestral backing of horns, old Hollywood strings and the rakish singer's own attractively reedy voice gives the songs a dreamy, glamorous feel that makes them endearing rather than egotistical. And anyway, how can you resist someone who plops a line about "hanging with the homo and the hairdresser," into a barroom lament ("Nobody's Off the Hook") that would otherwise be perfect for Tony Bennett?
All the fusillades of brass and strings can verge on overkill, (the small army of violins, violas and cellos overwhelm "Tulsa's" snarky sketch of a pop star run-in) but when "Stars" hits his targets, which is more often than not, the album makes a strong case for Wainwright as one of the most unabashedly and awesomely fabulous musicians of our time.
Favorite track: "Leaving for Paris No. 2"
"Boxer," The National
If you like music that that sounds like it stumbled out of a dive bar and fell into a gutter -- but kept its eyes on the stars -- then baby, you need to hear the National's "Boxer." Charting the same emotional terrain as Denis Johnson novels and Leonard Cohen albums, with a dash of Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" thrown in, the fourth album from this up-and-coming Brooklyn band is a tour-de-force of midnight music.
"Boxer" may be bruised, but it's not beaten. Matt Berninger's Bono-on-'ludes croon projects an innate pride that prevents his tales of romantic mystery and inebriation from ever slipping into self-pity or melodrama. And his lyrics, while at times needlessly clever (see "Ada's," "Don't talk about reasons / why you don't want to talk about reasons / why you don't want to talk"), are filled with the kind of telling details that add the lived-in grit needed to raise them above simple barstool storytelling. When Berninger claims, on "Apartment Song," that he doesn't need help knotting his tie, you know there have been plenty of times when he has.
Berninger's scruffy talents are well matched by his band's moonlit and bleary-eyed music. On "Boxer," guitars simmer rather than strum; piano parts bubble and sparkle like a just-poured pint of draught; and French horns and cellos drift ghostlike through the smoky, textured rhythms. Intricate and dreamlike, the instrumental backing helps smooth the harder edges in Berninger's lyrics. If you're looking for an album to be your drinking buddy, you'd be hard pressed to find one better than "Boxer."
Favorite track: "Apartment Story"
-- David Marchese