Rufus Wainwright: All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu


RIYL: Leonard Cohen, George Gershwin, deathly seriousness

All musicians should have Rufus Wainwright’s ambition, with a reach that far, far exceeds their grasp the way his does. The only catch, of course, is that there is no guarantee that you will like what he’s reaching for from one album to the next. He’s like Neil Young in the ’80s, only without the whole ‘fuck you Geffen’ thing.

There are two clear phases to his career at this point: the pop years (his 1998 debut, 2001’s Poses, and 2003’s Want One), and the stage years, which is everything he’s released after Want One. Hell, the man did a show as Judy Garland, so Broadway clearly appeals to him more than conventional popular music. And that’s okay: the man is nothing if not melodramatic, so he’s wise to play to his strengths.

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This time around, though, the ‘melo’ to ‘drama’ ratio is tilted mightily in favor of the former. All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, Wainwright’s first studio effort since 2007’s Release the Stars, is Rufus armed only with a piano, a stark contrast to the elaborate productions he’s been assembling for the last, well, ten years now. It’s pretty, but hot damn, is it maudlin. Wainwright’s pulse quickens only three times here, and they wisely opened the album with one of them: “Who Are You New York?” has the album’s biggest hooks both vocally and musically, with “Give Me What I Want and Give It to Me Now” not far behind. Someone needs to talk to him, though, about his tendency to draw out the syllables to the point where it doesn’t sound like he’s singing actual words. Entire songs can go by without a single lyric leaving a mark, and when it’s one of the, ahem, many ballads that All Days Are Nights sports, the experience of listening to the album can get laborious in a hurry.

In a business where promising careers get smashed by simple-minded executives who want to put a square peg in a round hole, Rufus Wainwright is one of the few artists who could stand to benefit from a little direction. Unless, of course, Wainwright is actually trying to make albums that appeal to fewer and fewer people, in which case he should continue doing exactly what he’s doing. All Days Are Nights is fine for what it is, but if he doesn’t watch it, Wainwright’s subsequent releases will be given the same fanfare as a new album by Sarah Brightman. (Decca 2010)

Rufus Wainwright MySpace page
Click to buy All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu from Amazon

  

Original Cast Recording: American Idiot


RIYL: Green Day, “Rent,” “Glee”

Here’s the God’s honest truth about the Broadway cast recording of “American Idiot” – it’s neither as good nor as bad as you’ve heard it is. These kinds of projects serve as a knives-out snarkfest for the more weak-willed music critics, who are then assaulted by the band’s faithful followers in the comment sections. Don’t take sides; they’re both right, and they’re both wrong.

The album features Green Day’s landmark 2004 album American Idiot in its entirety – they even included some B-sides from the Idiot sessions – along with a few tracks from the band’s 2009 album 21st Century Breakdown. The backing tracks are by and large Green Day’s original recordings, though “Last of the American Girls” starts off with a knowing wink to “Eleanor Rigby.” This makes for some smooth transitions from CD to the stage, though “Jesus of Suburbia” sports one of the most jarriing key changes you’ll ever hear when it’s the female lead’s turn to sing.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about American Idiot is the fact that Green Day’s original recordings of these songs are in many ways more musical than the musical versions. Stacked vocals are stripped away for the purpose of building to the big choral effect, though they don’t do that big choral effect nearly enough. Indeed, many songs are frankly undersung. The songs are already larger than life; the Broadway versions of them should be massive, like Godzilla-destroying-Manhattan big. The title track pulls a nifty layered vocal build-up during the break, and “Whatsername” capitalizes on the song’s soft-LOUD arrangement to make for a triumphant finale. “21 Guns” is the album’s showstopping moment, with the most theatrical arrangement and a vocal to match. The album could use more moments like them. “Wake Me Up When September Ends” has the pretty string touches, but for a musical about a post-9/11 landscape, that song of all songs should have been sung to the heavens.

The band were unquestionably treading a slippery slope in adapting their music for the stage, and they must have felt pressure to keep the spirit of the originals intact. Ironically, American Idiot could have benefited from a little more tinkering. It’s great to hear a Broadway score rock like this, but it would have been better to see them fully embrace what people love about Broadway in the first place. (Reprise 2010)

Click to buy American Idiot from Amazon

  

April Smith and the Great Picture Show: Songs for a Sinking Ship


RIYL: KT Tunstall, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Liza Minnelli

Sometimes great singers try a bit too hard to prove that they’re great. April Smith is not one of those singers. The arrangements on her latest and most impressive album Songs for a Sinking Ship fit her sultry voice like a glove and her songwriting is both playful and intellectual. April Smith is clearly capable of controlling the whole circus when it comes to vocal acrobatics but possesses the restraint to allow each song to shine as bright as her ability.

After numerous listens, I’ve yet to find a track that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy. A standout track on Songs for a Sinking Ship is “Wow and Flutter” which combines semi-dark theatrics with a refrain that could have found a home on a Ratt record. Odd, I know, but it totally works. Additionally, the closer “Stop Wondering” is easily the most delightful “fuck you” to a former lover ever recorded.

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Aside from her glowing talent behind the mic and the pen, she’s clearly figured out the business side of things as well. She used kickstarter.com and her ever-growing fan base (acquired from near constant touring over the past few years) to fund this release. We always hear stories of bands collecting cash online to fund their latest projects but many of those bands were once privileged enough to receive that initial “major label” push. April did it her way from the start and we can only hope that in the years to come she will be recognized as the fearless trailblazer that she is.

There are no gimmicks on Songs for a Sinking Ship. Only great writing and performing which is a very welcome change of pace from your typical release. You’re going to want to sing along with April Smith but you had better stretch out before attempting it or you will most certainly hurt yourself. (Little Roscoe 2010)

April Smith and The Great Picture Show | Official Website
Click to buy Songs for a Sinking Ship from Amazon

  

Straight No Chaser: Christmas Cheers


RIYL: Quirky, comedy infused classic holiday vocal music

There really isn’t another group like Straight No Chaser. All they do is holiday-themed music, and they do it their own way – that is, a cappella. With their new one, Christmas Cheers, the follow up to 2008’s Holiday Spirits, the group took even more risks than before. The soulful, R&B-infused vocal runs, techniques and harmonies are all there, and they effectively weave comedic bits into classic material without skipping a beat. That’s all well and good, but the novelty has worn off with just 12 months between releases, and some of these tracks tend to run into one another. The opening track, “The Christmas Can-Can,” is really funny with terms like “Shop until you lose your mind.” And some of the other really pretty classics include “Christmastime is Here” and “O Holy Night,” and there is a hilarious yet nicely done version of “You’re A Mean One, Mister Grinch.” But maybe the best track of all is the studio version of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” a track the group released as a live take last year and which has become their trademark. So give Christmas Cheers a fair listen, but be warned – you may not make it past two or three listens before January. (Atlantic 2009)

Straight No Chaser MySpace Page

  

Elvis Presley: Elvis 75 – Good Rockin’ Tonight


RIYL: 1950s rockabilly, 1960s pop, 1970s country, rock history in general

In honor of Elvis’ 75th birthday – we won’t get into whether he is “the late Elvis” or still rockin’ in the wilds of Michigan – Legacy’s issuing a bunch of records, this one being first up and coinciding with a Graceland bash. In a word, it’s great stuff, a career-spanning retrospective that covers the gamut of the good, bad and ugly from rock’s first real icon, its undisputed King. Elvis diehards probably have most of the 100 tracks spanning the almost 25 years of his recorded career, from the 1953 “My Happiness” demo to Moody Blue tracks; probably only the most manic completists among longtime fans will nibble at this.

For the rest of us, however, it puts Presley’s work in context: There’s no denying the power of Young Elvis, who had an incredible combination of talent, charisma, and the stones to fuse music from black R&B records, gospel, redneck bluegrass, and loud guitars. When he walked into the Memphis Sun Studios and hooked up with label impresario Sam Phillips in 1954 to put down his brilliant first sides, he was just a singer who loved all the music he heard from both sides of the tracks and just didn’t particularly care what people would think if he did. Maybe I’m alone in this opinion, but I believe that all the stuff that came after – the politics, the goofy Graceland stuff, the Army, the movies, the drugs, the Comeback, stuffing his sweaty and overweight frame into sequined Vegas costumes, and finally, the overdose, were not of his doing but caused by external forces he endured, albeit willingly at times. The early songs still sound fresh and crisp: “Mystery Train,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Jailhouse Rock.” A powderkeg of testosterone and unbridled joy. Rock, undistilled. Then comes the ballads, the country, the gospel stuff…the brutal “Suspicion.” It’s all here, along with the 2002 techno remix of “A Little Less Conversation.”

Listening to this end to end, it’s bizarre to hear Elvis’ transformation from the white-hot beginning to the dying embers of a career when he finally ingested that deadly cocktail of prescription drugs. At first, he synthesized all these at-the-time disparate musical influences to create such musical magic. By the mid-1970s, however, he was clinging desperately to country, sounding like a second-rate Hank Jr. knockoff at best (who himself was a poor Xerox of his daddy). Elvis ended up the ghost of his 1950s and early-’60s heyday, barely recognizable and subject to all the ridicule that’s followed his 1977 death. The moral of the story? Elvis wasn’t larger than life; he was just another rock star, human after all. But just like the NFL has good quarterbacks and bad, as far as rock stars go, Elvis was no Kyle Orton; he was Brett Favre, the greatest statistical player – unstoppable at first but maybe should have called it quits before his career turned into a circus. If you’ve never dug Elvis seriously, check out this box. There’s a lot more going on here than Jay Leno punch lines. When he was on top of his game, he wrote rock history with a gorgeously powerful voice and a beguiling smile. This box remembers that part, best. (Sony/Legacy, 2009).

  

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