May already? Wow. In about a month, I’ll be 38. Or, as my sister would call it, twenty-eighteen.
Speaking of old people, on my birthday (June 5), the Beach Boys will release their first album of my lifetime that I will care about. It’s the much-vaunted reunion record, and it’s called That’s Why God Made the Radio. Produced by and featuring Brian Wilson, for the first time in decades. And I’m alternately excited for this and dreading its very existence.
Last week, we got our first taste of the new record when the boys released this terrifically cheesy video for the title track. And, well… it’s not bad. It sounds to me like Brian’s pre-SMiLE solo work, but what elevates it above that is the delirious harmonies. Mike Love was right about one thing – the Beach Boys are a vocal group above all, and man, they’re just a breed apart in that area. The honey-delicious harmonies on this song make me smile down to my soul.
I’m not expecting great things from this. Then again, I wasn’t expecting to like Brian’s last few solo records very much either, and I did. In a very real way, reuniting with the Beach Boys brings Brian Wilson’s tragic yet redemptive story full circle. He’s revisited Pet Sounds, he’s conquered his fear of SMiLE, he’s made a recent solo classic (That Lucky Old Sun), and now he’s back behind the reins of the band that made him a star. I really hope this is a good album, but in some ways, that’s beside the point. It’s further proof that one of America’s few true geniuses is whole again, and loving life.
As a lifelong fan, that’s a pretty cool birthday present.
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Speaking of geniuses, here’s Rufus Wainwright.
One of my favorite things about Rufus is that you never know what to expect. His songs are full of twisty melodies and sit-up-and-take-notice moments, and on his first few efforts (particularly the smashing Want records), his production choices have been delightfully unpredictable. Wainwright makes huge albums, full of pomp and verve and ambition, and he’s always putting on a show – from the camp classic “Gay Messiah” to the delirious “I Don’t Know What It Is” to his signature “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” he writes songs for an audience, to be crooned or belted from the stage.
Which is one reason his last effort, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, was so unsettling for a lot of people. It was stark – just Rufus, alone with a piano, and it felt a little like intruding on his private backstage world. The songs were wonderful, as always, but it was the first Wainwright album that didn’t feel like a performance. It was especially jarring coming on the heels of both his Judy Garland tribute album, and his go-for-broke live record Milwaukee at Last. A lot of fans didn’t know what to make of it.
Well, not to worry, folks, because the Rufus Wainwright we both love is back. His new record, Out of the Game, is a triumphant return to full-blown pop music, and sports his best set of songs since Want One. But it’s no retreat, no retread – Out of the Game sounds like no Rufus Wainwright album before it. It’s a loose, freewheeling, breezy album that dispenses with the occasional fussiness of prior records. This one sounds like an effortless breath of fresh air from first note to last. It’s a Wainwright album for anyone and everyone.
Much of that can be traced back to producer Mark Ronson, working with Wainwright for the first time. Ronson is known for producing most of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, and has manned the boards for Lily Allen, Christina Aguilera and Robbie Williams. He’s a master at crafting campy, fun music that doesn’t vault over the line into ridiculous. Ronson gets it – he knows how to work with showmen, and reveal without revealing, if that makes sense. The greasepaint never runs on Out of the Game, but we see Rufus beneath it all anyway.
If, like me, you think Rufus Wainwright is one of the finest songwriters around right now, this album will do nothing to dispel that notion. There’s not a one I don’t like, and most of them offer up some of Wainwright’s sweetest melodies to date. The title track kicks it off with a George Harrison-style guitar flourish over a lite ‘70s pop beat, Rufus crooning splendid lyrics about growing older and happily sitting on the sidelines. “Look at you suckers, does your mama know what you’re doing,” he scolds in the chorus, and it’s like the flip side of “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk.” Wainwright is only 38, but he’s already writing graceful songs about middle age.
So that song’s a lot of fun, and the record doesn’t let up from there. The reproachful “Jericho” ambles along amiably until the gospel-tinged backing vocals come in, and then it gets awesome. The strings and horns make their first appearance on this one, accenting Wainwright’s finger-wagging “You ain’t ever gonna change” refrain. “Barbara” ups the ‘70s pop quotient even more, with a lazy beat, a walking bassline, some fluttering synths and a gently rising melody, sung in that inimitable voice.
“Welcome to the Ball” is a pop epic, flying on supple strings, horns and backing vocals. When the muted trumpets take over around two and a half minutes in, it’s pure euphoria. In contrast, “Montauk” is a beautiful hymn to his daughter, imagining a future visit to see Wainwright and his partner, Jorn Weisbrodt, when they’re both old. The repetitive melody, sung over trilling pianos and synths, is simply gorgeous.
“Bitter Tears” is perhaps the album’s biggest surprise, a synth-stomp disco number with guitar playing by Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It’s all kinds of awesome. But “Perfect Man” may be the album’s best tune. Sauntering forward on a “Billie Jean”-ish beat, Rufus suddenly pulls out a classical-tinged melody that skips beats like stones. It all leads to a singalong chorus that just knocks me out: “I’m doing all that I can trying to make the roses bloom in unison…” His sister Martha Wainwright lends a hand on vocals, and the siblings blend perfectly.
Martha comes back for the moving closer, the seven-minute “Candles,” and she brings the rest of the family with her: dad Loudon Wainwright III, and sibs Anna and Sloan Wainwright, all pitching in on a mournful, marvelous ode to helplessness. “I’ve tried to do all that I can, but the churches have run out of candles,” Rufus sings in that perfectly pitched voice, as the song builds up, finally bursting out in a bagpipe solo that closes things out. It’s tremendous.
To my mind, Rufus Wainwright didn’t need to make a comeback album. I’ve liked his last few efforts fine, and even his biggest stumble, 2007’s Release the Stars, is only lackluster in comparison with the gems that preceded it. But if he felt pressure to bring back the pure pop wonder, he certainly delivered with Out of the Game. In fact, I roundly disagree with his premise. If he was ever out of the game, this sparkling joy of a record gets him right back in it.
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Speaking of people who have never left the game, there’s Jack White.
Consider this. Jack White first bounded onto the national stage in 1999, when his band the White Stripes released their self-titled debut. Since then, he’s masterminded 10 albums with three different bands, released an onslaught of limited-edition slices of vinyl through his Third Man Records, and produced more than 20 albums for artists as diverse as Wanda Jackson, the Greenhornes and Loretta Lynn.
And in all that time, he’s never done one very important thing: released a record under his own name. Until now, that is. Blunderbuss, which flew onto store shelves (and then off of them just as quickly) last month, is Jack White’s first-ever solo album, and perhaps his first-ever admission that when people pick up music from any of his projects, he’s the draw. He’s one of those idiosyncratic, magnetic musicians that comes along once or twice in a generation – not the most talented or brilliant guy out there, but the one you want to watch, all the time, because he’s always doing something interesting.
Blunderbuss follows suit – it’s not the best record you’re likely to hear this year, but it’s unfailingly interesting, and takes Jack White’s classic rock sound into new territory. Those of you who still lump him in with the other garage-rockers of the ‘90s (like the Hives and the Vines) will probably be surprised by the variety of this album. The hard-charging singles “Sixteen Saltines” and “Freedom at 21” are nifty, but once they’re done, White doesn’t really return to that riffs-and-drums sound again.
What he does, very well, is take you on a tour of ‘70s rock and pop, trying them on like suits. That’s not quite right, though, since nothing here sounds less than genuine. “Love Interruption” is your first indication of what’s coming – it’s entirely drumless, built on strumming acoustic guitars and electric piano, with some clarinet lines snaking in and out, and singer Ruby Amanfu sharing the spotlight. The title track is similarly gentle, with pedal steel and fiddle and some sweet piano from Brooke Waggoner. If you liked Led Zeppelin’s forays into country-folk, you’ll dig this.
The angry “Hypocritical Kiss” is in the same vein, and Waggoner drives both that and the spaghetti Western mini-epic “Weep Themselves to Sleep.” That one’s something else – it rises up, crests and breaks a few times, White’s howling voice riding those waves perfectly. He goes boogie on “I’m Shakin’,” then slows down a ‘50s rocker to nice effect on “Trash Tongue Talker.” And on “Hip(Eponymous) Poor Boy” he writes a delightful vagabond song, complete with some fluttering mandolin by Fats Kaplin.
White saves his best material for the end. “On and On and On” is the record’s moodiest number, starting off like “No Quarter,” but ending up in a gorgeous folk valley. And “Take Me With You When You Go” is all over the place, in the best way – it begins with an electric piano gallop, but stops short about two minutes in, leaping forward again on some fuzzy guitar, gospel-tinged vocals, and frenetic drums. It’s a fine closer.
Blunderbuss isn’t brilliant – there aren’t very many top-notch songs here, and White gets by more on style than craft. But it is a solid, enjoyable piece of work that travels to many new lands and plants the Jack White flag. As a first solo effort, it’s all you could ask for. I have no idea what the guy’s going to do next – that’s part of his incalculable charm – but if he keeps following the path he blazes here, I’ll be glad to keep listening.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.