Second Thoughts: Rufus Wainwright, Feist and Wilco
So here’s a dispatch from the left coast of the U.S. I’ve spent the last few days in San Francisco, reacquainting myself with the area, exploring parts I’d neglected in the past, bemoaning the advanced gentrification of the Mission district, noting the astonishing number of people who own the Seaside Pearl-colored Toyota Prius and generally having a good time doing as little as possible (though I have been re-reading parts of Tia DeNora’s Music in Everyday Life and Arjun Appadurai’s edited volume The Social Life of Things). In short, this has been something like a vacation.
The musical accompaniment has been a mish-mash. The owners of the apartment where I’m crashing (and also where my friend Charlotte is housesitting) have a decent collection of mid-20th century straight-ahead jazz dotted with similar releases from the 1990s (James Carter, Russell Malone, Joe Henderson, Larry Smith, Los Hombres Calientes) and some of the most popular music from outside the U.S. during those years (e.g., Cesaria Evora). Added to what was already on offer, there are the contents of Charlotte’s iPod. Playing on shuffle, it produced a panoply of odd juxtapositions of the familiar (Aimee Mann, Prince) with the compellingly unknown (Homenaje a los Tigres del Norte, Chavela Vargas). Even without the aid of a crystal ball, I see some new purchases on the horizon.
In my more private moments, I’ve been listening to some of the new releases that have been sitting in the CD changer in my living room in Chicago: Rufus Wainwright’s Release the Stars, Feist’s The Reminder, and Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky. Each of those recordings came with lots of expectations attached. After listening to each of them sporadically, I’m inclined to declare them all to be really good releases and one to be great.
I’ll start with Wainwright, who seemed to have stumbled a bit with his previous effort, Want Two. When I first heard it in 2004, I was hoping for something comparable to or better than Want One (see this post for my musings on that album). This latest release, produced again by Marius de Vries with help from Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, recalls everything I loved about the first of the Want series. The arrangements and the programming, which use modern tools to create an amalgam of older dance forms, cabaret, Broadway tunes and more conventional rock, mostly succeed. The opening track, “Do I Disappoint You,” is an address to someone with high expectations, though it might equally be a question directed at fans like me. About midway through the track, as the layers multiply, the dissonances increase, and the arrangement becomes more elaborate, the answer seems an obvious no. Over the rest of the album, the answer remains the same. The first single (and second track), “Going to a Town,” is a gem carved from the stone of ’70s ballads, while “Rules and Regulations” is a lyrically imaginative track that perhaps strains its central metaphor to the breaking point.
If this album does make my 2007 best-of list, the track I’ll have to highlight will be “Not Ready to Love.” Like “Going to a Town,” it sounds like a throwback. In this case, though, the touchstone is the ballad style perfected by country performers (signalled by the prominent slide guitar in the arrangement) and used to great effect by Beck on Sea Change. This is also one of Wainwright’s most understated and stirring vocal performances. The slow pace and the repeated background vocals created for me the expectation that there was going to be some sort of crashing climax, but fortunately that climax never comes. The mood of contemplation remains even as the track fades. On an album that is satisfyingly extravagant in so many ways, the restraint shown on this track is welcome and refreshing. It has taken some time to grow on me, but the fact that I keep putting this CD in the player means that there’s lots to love.
I could make similar observations about The Reminder. Feist’s slow rise to celebrity following the U.S. release of Let It Die (see my brief review here) led even non-cutting edge publications like the New York Times to sing her praises in advance of this recent release. Partially as a result of that publicity (and the use of her songs in various commercials), Feist has been selling out nearly every night of her U.S. tour. While some of my friends have lamented the wide appeal of the album (they keep hearing it in coffee shops), that appeal may just be a result of how compelling the songwriting and performances are. I was originally disappointed with the album, thinking it wasn’t as stimulating through and through as its predecessor. Soon, though, that familiar thing happened: I found myself singing snippets of songs I thought I didn’t care for, e.g., “My Moon My Man.” The song that most recalls her earlier efforts is the opener, “So Sorry,” but the remainder of the album contains a number of high points that have traces of the past work but with added dimensions (“The Park,” “Limit to Your Love,” “Brandy Alexander” and “Honey Honey”). The best of them for me is “The Water,” a tune that threatens to reduce me to tears. As was the case with “Not Ready to Love,” this track makes a virtue of sparseness. Most of the track consists only of piano, voice and bass. That stripped-down texture really allows the expressivity of Feist’s voice to come through. In some ways it achieves the same effect as “Ted’s Waltz” from Beth Orton’s Daybreaker, though with more economy. As much as I still prefer Let It Die, I can’t stop listening to The Reminder.
And the Wilco release has been heralded as a return to form, if not simply a retreat from experimentalism. The electronics and irreproducible sounds that helped make 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot such a kick in the pants give way here to what sounds like a band simply playing in the studio. While others have identified precedents for the sound of this album, it most reminds me of what I love about listening to late 1960s/early 1970s rock by artists like Van Morrison, the Band, the Beatles and George Harrison (especially the latter’s masterpiece All Things Must Pass). The arrangements and the songwriting are uncluttered, and perhaps as a result, we hear Jeff Tweedy as an expressive, passionate singer rather than a world-weary, above-it-all alt-country urbanite. It’s difficult for me to identify standout tracks, but the ones that always make me look up from whatever I’m doing when they come on unexpectedly in shuffle mode include “Either Way,” “Impossible Germany” (with great guitar interplay throughout), the title track, “Shake It Off,” “Hate It Here” (Tweedy at his most heartbroken and soulful), “Walken” and “On and On and On.” That list comprises most of the tunes on the album, though. So let’s call this the great one of the bunch. Since it’s dusk now, and the fog is rolling in, I think it’s time to give this one, or maybe all three, another spin…