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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Rufus Wainwright: Release the Stars

In This is Your Brain on Music , by Daniel J. Levitin, the author writes about how the way people perceive music is based on a certain amount of expectation. We hear a rhythm or a melody, and we anticipate the beat or note coming up. That’s what gets us to tap our feet or sing along. He also notes that part of the reason people love music, part of what makes music interesting, is when those expectations are unexpectedly unfulfilled.

Rufus Wainwright is the king of this. On his most recent album, Release the Stars, the most striking, stirring parts of songs are when the melody suddenly shifts, often almost to the point of dissonance. These moments make the listener sit up and go “Huh?!” It’s masterful and evidence of his incredible genius when it comes to orchestration.

Release the Stars is veritably the score to a huge, fully orchestrated musical. The first single, and my favorite on the album, is “Do I Disappoint You?,” an explosive cry against all things melodramatic, which is ironic considering who’s singing and the rest of the album. Still, his frustrated call of “Why does it always have to be chaos? Why does it always have to be wanderlust? Sensational,” complete with Arcade Fire-like banshee screams in the background, made me think, “I KNOW, right?!” The melody of the chorus goes one way twice and then all of a sudden it flips to the point where it’s virtually unsingable.

The next song, “Going to a Town” is the first released single. It’s Wainwright through and through, accompanied by a simple piano melody, drums, and a hint of strings in the background. Apparently, he’s tired of America, and he certainly knows his audience.

“Tiergarten” begins with a chant that sounds like an Enya track and ends with harp music that sounds reminiscent of the score of Edward Scissorhands. If Wainwright is the king of dissonance and unfulfilled expectations, he’s also the king of yearning: “I have suffered shipwreck against your dark brown eyes/I have run aground against your broken down smiles.”

I read someone’s description of “Nobody’s Off the Hook” as quirky. I, however, find it hackneyed. How many words can he rhyme with hook? This, however, is the big ballad of the musical, complete with incredibly beautiful sections of just strings.

Then, we’re suddenly in a disco, as “Between My Legs,” the obscene valentine to his object of affection, begins. I tried to do some research to figure out the background of this song. All the message boarders seem to know the history but aren’t writing about it. It seems to be about escaping with a lover when Armageddon comes. It ends with the famous chords from Phantom of the Opera, which is a wonderfully clever tip of the hat to the genre he can’t seem to deny.

It’s here in the album that I get restless. “Rules and Regulations” and “Not Ready to Love” are both slow, almost plodding, and sound too much like each other. I want the songs to be shorter every time I listen to the album.

“Slideshow” is sung like a petulant, insecure, incessant child: “Do I love you because you treat me so indifferently? Or is it the medication?” The refrain “And I better be prominently featured in your next slideshow” is repeated like a whine. The song is complicated and long, complete with a large horn section and truly satisfying orchestra hits.

“Tulsa,” a hilarious, wordy, frenzied tango leads into “Leaving for Paris,” a slow waltz about brushing off a lover: “And when I get there, I will lose the ring you gave me,” that strikes me as one of few songs on the album with a quiet melodic resolution. This leads straight into “Sanssouci” , the song most obviously about escape.

The 11th hour showstopper is “Release the Stars,” which begins as a doowop song and turns into another full-fledged orchestrated showtune. In the middle of this song, Wainwright shows his huge range, sounding like a black lady belter who can also sing baritone. It’s astounding.

If you keep in mind that I can never resist a good showtune, nevermind an orchestra hit here and there, you’ll understand why this album is in serious heavy rotation on my iPod. [My mom loves it too. (Hi Mom!)]

1 comment:

Rachiewrites said...

So keenly observed (or, should I say, heard?)! Hi, back! ~Mom