Song of the Day, December 4: Vibrate by Rufus Wainwright

RufusVibrateToday’s song is a fun moment from Rufus Wainwright’s ambitious third album, Want One. Vibrate is an ode to hooking up in the modern age, a look at the challenges of blending technology and romance.

My phone’s on vibrate for you
But still I never ever feel from you

Wainwright’s vocal is flawless, capturing the tension and loneliness with just the right edge of hope. Short and sweet, it’s a delightful construct and one of the singer’s personal favorites.

Enjoy this great song today.

Song of the Day, August 31: What’ll I Do from the McGarrigle Hour

McGWhatllToday’s song is a splendid family rendering of a pop standard. Irving Berlin wrote What’ll I Do in 1923 for inclusion in his Music Box Revue series. It was introduced by singers Grace Moore and John Steel and has been covered by dozens of artists; Nelson Riddle famously adopted it as a theme for his Oscar-winning score for the 1974 film The Great Gatsby.

When Kate and Anna McGarrigle assembled their extended family live shows, the McGarrigle Hour, they selected songs that showed the breadth of their tastes, let each performer shine, and resonated with them personally. Kate had selected What’ll I Do for their mother’s funeral, and the sisters decided to include it in the program. To capture the family spirit, Kate sang it with her ex-husband Loudon Wainwright III and their children Rufus and Martha Wainwright.

Sister Jane McGarrigle describes the situation nicely in her liner notes for the album taken from the show.

This song means a lot to us. Kate came up with it when our mother died in May 1994, and we wanted her funeral music to have a special touch. It was from [her] era and perfectly expressed our grief. … Here, Kate, Loudon and their kids, a foursome who had never sat down to a Christmas turkey together, let alone sing a song, come together as natural as breathing.

The family harmonies are lovely and haunting, giving no hint of the tense history they share. The track is a standout from the show and a fine moment in all four perfomers’ catalogs.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, June 3: In A Graveyard by Rufus Wainwright

RufusGraveyardToday’s song is the poignant closing track to Rufus Wainwright’s stunning second album, Poses. A deceptively simple piano and vocal number, it’s perfectly constructed to convey the meditative theme. Pondering mortality, Wainwright closes his ambitious song cycle about personal landmarks with an apt subject. He’s in fine voice, making the most of his impressive range without overpowering the subtle charm of the song.

Enjoy this lovely live version today.

Song of the Day, February 10: Foolish Love by Rufus Wainwright

WainwrightRRufusToday’s song is Foolish Love by Rufus Wainwright. By the time he released his debut album in 1998, Wainwright was an experienced writer and performer. He sang and played with his talented family at home and toured with his mother and aunt, Kate & Anna McGarrigle. Working with family friend Lenny Waronker, he recorded a strong set of demos and landed a deal with DreamWorks. Rufus Wainwright was a labor of love, taking months to record and produce. It’s a great showcase for his talents, showing off his charming vocals, piano skills, and growing confidence as a vocalist.

Foolish Love was the perfect choice as the opening track. Starting with a simple vocal and piano, Wainwright invokes the five senses as he ponders the powers of love. The song builds slowly, adding instruments and eventually including a full string section. After a glorious swirl of sound, it wraps up with musical simplicity. It’s a stirring ode to what love can do to us, celebratory and cautionary in one dazzling package.

Enjoy this great song today.

Album of the Week, August 24: Poses by Rufus Wainwright

RufusPosesRufus Wainwright was born into a truly musical family. The son of Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, he grew up surrounded by people who knew, loved, played, and wrote a diverse array of musical forms. He demonstrated a musical knack from a young age. Starting with casual family gatherings and eventually recording and touring with his mother and aunt, he developed his own musical flair, occasionally writing songs as he honed his craft. A talented pianist with a charming, distinctive voice, it was a foregone conclusion that he would carve out his own career. With his talent, pedigree, and status as a rare (for the time) openly gay singer-songwriter, his eponymous debut was released in 1998 to great fanfare and acclaim. It showed of his talents nicely and explored his folk-tinged baroque pop style. Wainwright toured extensively and engaged actively in publicizing the album. At the same time, he began assembling songs for his follow-up.

Title Poses
Act Rufus Wainwright
Label DreamWorks Release Date June 5, 2001
Producer Pierre Marchand, Greg Wells, Alex Gifford, Ethan Johns, Damian LeGassick
U.S. Chart  117 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk
  2. Greek Song
  3. Poses
  4. Shadows
  5. California
  6. The Tower of Learning
  7. Grey Gardens
  8. Rebel Prince
  9. The Consort
  10. One Man Guy
  11. Evil Angel
  12. In A Graveyard

Poses came out nearly three years later, and the difference in confidence and musical diversity is striking. While Rufus Wainwright would continue to grow and offer solid, sometimes challenging music, his sophomore release captures him at just the right moment. Cheeky, witty, charming, and just serious enough to pull it all together, he shows off everything in his musical bag of tricks but manages to make it into a stunning cohesive work. This cohesion is furthered by a kind of sharp-kid-in-the-big-city vibe generated by Wainwright’s immersion in New York life and stay at the (in)famous Chelsea Hotel while working on the disc.

Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk is the perfect opener as well as one of his finest songs. A delightful tribute to enjoyment and addictions — the titular pair, he assures us, being “just a couple of my cravings” — it sets the tone of the album. Fun but serious, musically solid with just enough flair to surprise, it’s a wonderful song with a perfect vocal. The title track — one of the first written for the album — is the other touchstone. Inspired by the Chelsea Hotel, it’s beautiful, circular musical theme echoes the revolving door of fame and power Wainwright witnessed while staying there. It’s a complex song that simply flows from start to end, an amazing demonstration of the composer’s growing talent.

The album is a deft sampler of styles. Greek Song — a self-proclaimed ode to queer love — is a sunny series of vignettes held together by unusual Asian instrumentation. Shadows is a dry dub of cinematic energy, building in slow dark, layers. California is a fun romp filled with nice musical moments and celebrity name-dropping. The Tower of Learning is a nod to Wainwright’s love of opera, with a trip-hop underpinning. Grey Gardens manages to blend Thomas Mann and the titular documentary into a haunting, sympathetic pop symphony.

Three of the tracks use grandiose images to anchor Wainwright’s themes. Rebel Prince parlays the tantalizing frustration of an anticipated assignation in royal garb and a shuffling cabaret rhythm. The Consort offers a harpsichord-inspired tribute to those who inspire us. Evil Angel was based on a real encounter Wainwright had in France and surges with dark energy.

One of the finest moments on the album was actually written fifteen years earlier by Rufus’ father. One Man Guy is a simple, folky tribute to personal independence. Rufus delivers a spot-on vocal and manages an homage to his dad’s music that becomes his own. Ironically for the subject matter, it’s the most collaborative track on the album, featuring guitar and vocals by Rufus’ close friend Teddy Thompson (himself a second-generation folk musician) and vocals by his sister Martha. It’s a stirring moment that shines because of its simple energy.

Things wrap up with In A Graveyard, another less ornate but no less powerful song. Rufus plays piano and sings, delivering a quietly moving reflection on life and love. A quiet refutation of the excesses that wind throughout most of the rest of the disc, it’s a nice meditation and a perfect closer, creating a powerful, evocative set of songs.

FURTHER LISTENING: In fifteen years, Rufus Wainwright has released eight albums (not including two live sets). All of them have something to offer and feature strong songs and creative musical approaches, centered on his strong, distinctive vocals. His debut is solid, but a bit over-long. His third album was intended to be a double-disc entitled Want. It was wisely split into two albums; Want One is a worthy successor to Poses without quite as many highs. Want Two hinted more strongly at Wainwright’s occasional tendency to over-embroider, something that bogs down the otherwise strong Release the Stars. All Days Are Nights is a stark, touching tribute to his recently departed mother. Out of the Game is a mature but fun set of songs that demonstrates just how much more less can be. Rufus Does Judy is a delightful conceit, with Wainwright covering Judy Garland’s famous Carnegie Hall live album; it works surprisingly well. Rufus also participates in many family and friend gatherings and tribute concerts. Two powerful highlights are 1998’s The McGarrigle Hour and the touching, star-studded Sing Me the Songs, a tribute to the music of his late mother.

Song of the Day, March 4: Give Me What I Want and Give It To Me Now by Rufus Wainwright

RufusGiveMeToday’s song is Give Me What I Want and Give It To Me Now! by Rufus Wainwright. It appears on his sixth album, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, his first release after the death of his mother. Eschewing his typical lush arrangements, Wainwright crafted a set of songs featuring primarily his vocals and piano work. This track is a standout, with a jaunty piano line that would be suited to the music halls. The bitter lyric — directed obliquely at critics of his recently mounted opera — and surging bass line add an element of menace that creates a palpable tension. Clocking in at just over two minutes, it’s a powerful, compelling song that stands with the best of his work.

Enjoy this musical gem today.

Song of the Day, October 15: Talk to Me of Mendocino by Kate McGarrigle

KateMRufusMarthaWToday’s song is Talk to Me of Mendocino. It’s a loosely autobiographical song that Kate McGarrigle wrote. It first appeared on her album with her sister, 1975’s stunning Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Originally performed as a duet between the sisters with a piano accompaniment, it was a staple of their live shows. In later years, when her children Rufus and Martha Wainwright frequently joined the live shows, the three of them regularly performed a version arranged for guitar instead. The original is haunting and lovely, but there’s something added to the magic with the three voices and the quieter instrumentation. It was captured brilliantly on the family outing recorded for The McGarrigle Hour.

Mendocino is a song of yearning and wandering. Told in poignant vignettes, it is deeply personal and yet resonates on a more universal level. It’s one of the late Kate McGarrigle’s finest songs.

Talk to me of Mendocino
Closing my eyes I hear the sea
Must I wait, must I follow?
Won’t you say “Come with me?”

Enjoy this lovely song today.

Song of the Day, December 27: What Can I Do by Antony and the Johnsons with Rufus Wainwright

rufusantonyToday’s song is What Can I Do? by Antony and the Johnsons. It appears on their brilliant second album I Am A Bird Now. The disc features a number of impressive guest stars; this track has frequent Antony collaborator Rufus Wainwright sharing the lead vocals. Both singers have powerful, distinctive voices that work well solo or in harmony. For this song they wrap their singing around each other, creating an otherworldly effect.

The song is brief and sad, carrying a sense of powerlessness and yearning. These are themes that Antony and Wainwright frequently explore, and their shared, impassioned plea is potent stuff.

What can I do
When the bird’s got to die
What can I do
When she’s too weak to fly
What can I do
When she’s calling my name
She’s crying
Mama, Help me to live
What can I do

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, July 22: 14th Street by Rufus Wainwright

Today’s song is 14th Street by Rufus Wainwright. It appears on his third album, Want One, from 2003. Originally conceived as a double album, he released it as two discs a year apart instead. This track is a powerful cry of heartbreak. It’s filled with cinematic references and grandeur.

But why’d you have to break all my heart
Couldn’t you have saved a little bit of it?
Why’d you have to break all my heart?
Couldn’t you have saved a minor part?

Enjoy this live performance of a wonderful song and wish Rufus Wainwright a very happy 39th birthday today.

Song of the Day, March 16: One Man Guy by Rufus Wainwright with Teddy Thompson and Martha Wainwright

Today’s song is One Man Guy by Rufus Wainwright with Teddy Thompson and Martha Wainwright. It is featured on Rufus’ brilliant second album, 2001’s Poses. Written by his father, Loudon Wainwright III, it’s a delightfully wry about the joys and pitfalls of self-sufficiency. Somewhat ironically, it is the one song on Poses that prominently features guest performers: Rufus’ sister Martha and close friend Teddy Thompson. Their intermingling harmonies are beautiful as they capture the youthful insolence of the lyrics. It’s clearly a favorite, cropping up in live shows in many different configurations. Enjoy this delightful song today.

Added bonuses!

  • A live version by Rufus, Teddy and Martha
  • Another live version, with Teddy’s sister Kami filling in for Martha
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