Monday, September 20, 2010

To Diva or Too Diva?

So good friend Lisa B. who runs the most awesome hightouchmegastore (HTMS) has been trying to get me to listen to--no, revel in--the music of Rufus Wainwright. So I finally picked up a couple albums, but I just couldn’t make up my mind. So why not go to the expert, right?

CPS: So I finally have a couple Rufus Wainwright album's now: Poses and All Days Are Night: Songs for Lulu. Would you say that these are fairly representative--that is, if someone likes, loves, or dislikes these two albums, can they count on feeling similar about others? Or are these exceptional in any way in your mind?


Whoops, didn't mean to do that caps lock thing, but here we go: I would say that Poses is representative of Rufus W.'s songcraft and insouciant lyricism. I would say that Songs for Lulu is more of a departure--it feels like an album of art songs more than pop songs, even though his pop sensibility is there too. I think both are splendid recordings and I really am loving Songs for Lulu.

But Poses is more of a piece with Want One and Want Two, and Release the Stars, I'd say. A song like "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," for instance, is perhaps the ur-Rufus song--maybe one of his best--and it's on Poses, a recording that can be listened to with pleasure from start to finish (that sentence is just about content free, I think. Sorry about that).

So what are you thinking about Rufus at this point?

CPS: First of all, who said this blog requires content?

Okay, so here is the deal--I am pretty ambivalent, but feeling like that must be due to some deficiency on my part--like I just don't quite get the whole Rufus thing. That said, your first answer here clarifies some things as I much prefer Poses for starters and "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk" is a great tune (when I heard it the first time, I thought I was going to love that album). But before we get into any particular album, a few general reactions about my ambivalence.

First, he has a very unique sounding voice that is all laid-back, piano bar-like, but it masks some very good lyrics--which is not to say that the voice and lyrics don't go together. But I find myself feeling like there is a certain sameness to the sound and I long for a bit more variation between songs. Now, I know that there are plenty of artists who have a pretty repetitive sound, but for some reason this one tends to make me tune out after a while. When I really listen closely to Poses for instance, I find each song independently to be really strong and well crafted, but I have never really felt like I have enjoyed the whole album together as a whole.

Perhaps this is a seasonal -setting thing? Somehow, I feel like I should be listening to these albums late at night as embers die in a fireplace with a glass of red wine and not in a car or on headphones, or at the beach or even in summer? Is that true for you or does his music actual transcend that type of categorization for you?

HTMS: It might be, of course, that he's just not your style of artist. One thing I think is great about RW is the instrumentation on his songs--so to me, they don't really all sound the same. That said, having just revisited the tracks on Poses, I can see why you'd actually feel that way. It's interesting how you sort of construct the artist in your mind, conveniently leaving out the parts that are less interesting (I have, for instance, constructed a great acting career for Sean Connery entirely out of The Man Who Would Be King, The Russia House, and The Untouchables).

So, on Poses, I find some variety, with the stellar tracks being "Cigarettes" (which we've already mentioned), "California," and "Rebel Prince." On the eponymous Rufus Wainwright, there's"Barcelona," "Beauty Mark," and "Matinée Idol." But once you get to Want One, there's all kinds of goodness--maybe it's there that the promise of the earlier songs really unfolds and becomes quite brilliant.

The voice, for me, took some warming up to. It's strong, and has a great range, and it's unique, and it's good. But there was a quality to it--a lassitude, dragged out a little, and paradoxically a little brassy--that made me think, Dude, you must shape your embouchure so that your tone is more rounded! But now, I love the quality of the voice, and I love the diva in it--the Ethel Merman of it all. No accident that he did the iconic Liza Minnelli concert, practically note for note. He *is* a diva.

So what I'm saying is, just buy the whole oeuvre, for crying out loud. Because there are riches awaiting you. One: "What a World" (on Want One). Two: "I Don't Know What It Is" (also Want One). Really, pretty much all of Want One, and on Want Two, there is "Little Sister," "Art Teacher," and "Waiting for a Dream." All pretty much amazing. Bonus: "Going to a Town," on Release the Stars.

CPS: Funny how these exchanges crystallize stuff. See I was just saying that perhaps my problem with RW is that it is all too Broadway-diva like for me. Any hope that I had of being a big fan of that genre has been driven from me by a certain Broadway-obsessive culture I have found myself in the last years. It makes me knee-jerk, I know, but, really, how does one stop that?! You don't. You account for it--although it probably means that I might not ever really find myself listening to Songs for Lulu.

So, I am going to keep Poses in the mix--and I really agree with the songs you have picked out here as highlights, particularly "California." And we shall see if that moves me to move back to Want One or Want Two. Fair enough?

HTMS: Tragic. Alas and woe. Is what I have to say about your stance vis a vis the theatrical elements of RW. I get it, you can't really do anything about that. But do you find Lulu to fit the description? I was thinking of them as more in the line of classical art songs. I need to listen to that again, clearly. I find Lulu to be a departure for RW, a beautiful one.

Okay, I'm going to suggest some tracks to listen to (I know I did in a previous installment in this exchange, but just for good measure), because maybe that's where you'll find the RW you like or even love--track by track, one good song at a time:

"Going to a Town" (on Release the Stars)--really, you just must hear this. It is passionate and gorgeous. "Do I Disappoint You" and "Tulsa" (also on Release the Stars) "Oh What a World," "I Don't Know What it Is," and "Vibrate" (on Want One--this whole recording is splendid, in my opinion) "Little Sister" and "Art Teacher" (on Want Two)

There are also terrific tracks, such as "Barcelona," on Rufus Wainwright.

For an interesting cross reference, I also suggest you listen to Martha Wainwright's eponymous recording and/or I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too.

Well, I'm sorry you didn't get converted to the Rufus Wainwright Church of the Insouciant Diva. I really do hope you'll listen to the songs above--at least to "Going to a Town." It's part of my daughter in Scotland's "heartbreaking songs about America trilogy" (other tunes: "I'm Not Ready to Make Nice" [Dixie Chicks] and "Jesusland," [Ben Folds]). That's an endlessly expandable list, by the way. Speaking of Ben Folds: what is your view?

CPS: Okay--Want One will go on the list and I will go another round--I promise. For now though, I’ll drop a couple tunes from Poses on the blog here for other uniformed folks to check out. You have a favorite video to suggest for sharing? As for Ben Folds, well that is a whole new discussion!

Here are the video picks from HTMS:

HTMS: Both of these are live, and solo piano--I think you see the structure of the songs and the melodies, as well as hear the lyrics clearly and beautifully, this way.

Here's "Going to Town"

Here's "Art Teacher":

And for those interested in Poses here are a couple tracks that are both HTMS and CPS approved.

Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk

Thanks to HTMS for the insights.

1 comment:

  1. Did we say everything there was to be said? Possibly. How much fun was this to do? Must do it again!