When I went to see Rufus Wainwright in Boston, not only did I finally manage to separate him from Elliot Smith but I also came to a pleasant conclusion: Rufus Wainwright is adorable. He's also gifted with one of those rare, rich voices that can cover up all kinds of blind spots, especially those preposterously poetic lyrics that he's very fond of writing.
As the kind of artist who merits forgiveness, though, it's very easy to appreciate this flowery, rococo pop record for its foppery and insistent, careful tunefulness. The sticking point will probably be those lyrics -- Wainwright's choice of metaphor and setting (you know, his "poses") might make skeptics question his manhood and whether his relationship to earth is as close as his relationship to Middle Earth. Again, though, that voice -- to hear it and the way it soars over the record is to fully appreciate the way Wainwright's Snagglepuss suavity and pipes let him get away with top-heavy, Elizabethan fairy-tale concept songs like "Rebel Prince" and "The Consort" (back to back, even!), liberal use of Bilbo Baggins-y words and phrases like "crucifix," "entrust," "endless warring," and "drawbridge" (without irony, even!), literary references to doomed love like "Tadzio" (as a chorus, even!), and reprising the first song at the end (like Neil Young, even!).
The melodies fly high, reaching peaks on the partially plain-talk rock-pop of "California" and "Grey Gardens." Since Wainwright is adorable, he might actually be a nice guy, not interested in metaphor, setting, and song as outlets for scorn. Funny thing is, the best lyrics on the album come from one man who isn't afraid to behave badly -- Rufus' dad, Loudon Wainwright III, whose valentine to his own misanthropy, "One Man Guy," is given a discreet ravishing by Wainwright, his lovely sister Martha, and Richard Thompson's kid on guitar. And harmonize? Do they ever. -- Addison Engelking
10,000 Hz. Legend
Most of the elements that made Air's 1998 debut Moon Safari so charming and widely influential are conspicuously absent from this sophomore album. Gone are the muted horns, the sophisticated retro beats, the smooth washes of keyboards, and the emphasis on songwriting that Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel used to create a near-perfect, post-party chill-out record that transcended mere nostalgia. Sadly, the new album is an aimless, vacuous affair that alternates between boring and downright excruciating.
Vocals play a much more central role on 10,000 Hz. Legend, with a parade of disembodied automaton voices reducing most songs to kitschy mush. With its steady drums and stark acoustic guitar, "How Does It Make You Feel" would fit perfectly on Air's wonderfully bleak soundtrack to Sofia Coppola's film The Virgin Suicides, except for the strained, vaguely masculine electronic voice that delivers stiff love-letter lyrics. In the end, the whole thing is just a joke, as a female robot tells the guy to stop smoking. Ha, ha, huh?
10,000 Hz. Legend combines elements from both Moon Safari and The Virgin Suicides, but Godin and Dunckel can't seem to find the right proportions. On "Radio #1," the Suicides sound curdles into the Heavy Metal soundtrack, while "People in the City" and "Sex Born Poison" just ramble on and on.
At least one track lives up to the high standards Moon Safari promised. Structured in three movements, the seven-minute suite "Radian" uses disembodied chants, psychedelic flutes, lush strings, and warped synths to create an intriguingly spacey vibe that recalls Fantastic Planet.
Godin and Dunckel seem almost desperate not to tread old ground or repeat themselves, and they avoid their strengths and venture into new territory. But this approach plays exclusively to their weaknesses. It seems almost inevitable then that they would fall on their faces with this release. Still, it didn't have to be such a long and embarrassing fall. -- Stephen Deusner
Why does a moderately big brain usually sink the leaky boat known as rock music? It doesn't always have to happen that way, but quite often the cerebral approach to things that go guitar-bass-drums hamstrings listening pleasure. That almost happens here on the second album from Burning Airlines (yes, named after a Brian Eno song, a warning signal in itself), where sincere yet quirky wordplay combines with sprung rhythms and muscular guitar playing. The result is a record that overwhelms more than it entertains. However, these former members of Jawbox and Government Issue somehow make the fussy ride to Cerebral Rock City kind of enjoyable at times.
The most easily identifiable reference point would be the first three Wire records. The influence of those arty, English pseudo-punk rockers can be heard in the strangest places. The Grifters have always sounded like they had a Wire LP or two in their record collections, come to think of it. And Burning Airlines often sounds like a pale version of the Grifters or the Gang of Four, another obvious reference point here. Guitarist J. Robbins resembles Gang of Four's Andy Gill in his staccato, chord-based playing. Gill was a big fan of Wilko Johnson, guitarist for English pub band Dr. Feelgood, so it's kind of ironic to note that big-brained post-rockers like Burning Airlines may have unwittingly gotten a big chunk of their guitar sound from the likes of boozy old pub rockers Dr. Feelgood. They also sound a bit like Fugazi (they're from Washington, D.C., so how could they not borrow a little predictable fury from their neighbors?) and, well, Jawbox, albeit a less cluttered and less noisy version. A little stern and way too smart for their own good, Burning Airlines needs to relax and stop studying so hard. -- Ross Johnson
It takes multiple personalities to enjoy Kool Keith, aka Black Elvis, aka Dr. Octagon, aka Dr. Doooom, aka countless site-specific cameo personas. Roughly two years ago, all of these aliases were worth following. Whatever his name, Keith Thornton, former leader of the great lost rap crew Ultramagnetic MCs, was an avant-garde hip-hop hero whose major innovation -- turning rhymes into breakneck-speed automatic writing that excludes boast or even sense -- could not be denied. Medical manuals, serial murders, butt sex -- it was all grist for the mill, and it ranged in quality from "whoa!" to "what?".
On Spankmaster, Kool Keith the sex monster crafts a creepy, really really bass-heavy and almost uniformly unpleasant vibe you could call ear-porn for the mentally ill. When he isn't raving about thongs or finding new places to shoot his wad, Keith's obsessions and targets are so absurd (Mack trucks, weak MCs who are also NBA players) they might be funny if only Keith weren't so clearly serious -- the "I hate you" from "Maxin In the Shade" is most remarkable because, in context, it is a direct, narcissistic expression that is remarkably unrevealing, impersonal, and, therefore, inhuman. Whoa, kind of like actual porn! -- AE