Rufus Wainwright: Release the Stars (CD)

June 26, 2007


Certain composers’ oeuvre can be thought of as one large composition. Each piece is cut from that large fabric. Composers that come to mind in this category are Edgard Varése and George Crumb. Similarly, there are songwriters who, in addition to penning a popular song, compose song prototypes (for lack of a better word), and throughout their career recompose these songs, consciously or unconsciously, with those prototypes. Songwriters in this category include James Taylor and Paul McCartney. Songwriters and their publishers are very aware of the audience’s attraction to these prototypes.

RELEASE THE STARS (2007, Geffen), Rufus Wainwright’s latest album, was recorded balancing and competing with the gravitational fields of his Judy Garland shows and starting his new opera for the Met. All Rufus fans were curious to see what he would do next. With four CDs under his belt to date, and many more available as collaborations and songs on films, Rufus has amassed a handsome catalog of songs. Many are historically significant (read more in my upcoming book), and many are prototype songs, and not just of his own, but of other artists as well.

In my opinion, many of the songs from RELEASE resonate with some of his earlier songs. I wonder whether this decision to tap into his own prototypes already is a marketing choice, an example of automatic-pilot writing, or a lack of exploring new ideas. Composers who do not open themselves up to new music sadly fall into the latter category and keep rewriting the same songs for a whole career, if it lasts that long. Other songwriters infuriate and surprise their audiences by reinventing themselves every few years. Rufus hasn’t really done either. He knows a lot of music and uses that knowledge as a vast musical palette.

That being said, RELEASE is Rufus’s next album. Nothing groundbreaking in it, but there is evidence that in this album, seeds are planted that, if well tended, should blossom and metamorphose into a career as a so-called, classical composer.

If this were a concept album, I would discuss the songs in order of their playlist. I don’t find this CD to be one, so I’ll choose to accent the songs I hear as the strongest ones, and mention the other songs to tweak your interest, or not.

“Nobody’s Off the Hook” is scored for Rufus (voice and piano) and string quartet. The spirit of a bouncy Schubert song hangs over this one. The “movement” is really a song: melody over a chord progression. The strings add textural color but are not central to most of the song. It doesn’t matter. This string arrangement is BY RUFUS. Good for you Rufus! You do NOT disappoint me. I see this as a young concert composer flapping his wings. The direction to go now is to take out the piano and give it all to the strings. But he’s not ready to do that quite yet. Listen to how the string writing gets braver and braver as the song goes on. I’ll be patient. The harmonic language of the song nothing nothing that can’t be found in a Carpenter’s song, but the presence of the string quartet gives it a new classiness.

“Tulsa” is also scored for strings and Rufus (piano and voice). The song opens with a vamp reminiscent of “The Art Teacher” and has song-like melody-with-chords underpinning throughout, but here we here Rufus’s string writing abilities kicking up a notch: becoming more daring, pushy, active, and containing more idiomatic writing for the strings. Bravo Rufus! The song is only 2:19 long. (It’s a lot of work writing down notes ain’t it Rufus?)

“Leaving for Paris” is an older, Poulencian song that many of us have known for quite a while. It’s a great song and was worth bringing out. The orchestration is for Rufus (voice and piano) and a multi-tracked bass played by Jeff Hill. The orchestration is eccentric and I’ve grown to like it quite a lot after hating it on first listening.

I learned a great deal hearing Vince Mendoza’s orchestration and arrangement of Joni Mitchell music on her last two albums. For me, this music became “Late Mitchell” in the spirit of “Late Beethoven” the point being that when artists revisit their early work, late in life, it is interesting. To hear Joni sing “Both Sides Now” and “A Case of You” with orchestra tears me apart. It is with that hope that I find “Sanssouci” a great song. But what a dorky orchestration. I must confess to not liking the Beatles original orchestration of “Here, There, and Everywhere.” It’s one I’d love to hear Paul do late in life with an orchestration by Vince Mendoza. So, I can imagine a huge range of vocal artists taking on “Sanssouci” and making it the great song it is. But here it sounds like a peppy little pop song. The harmonic layout is a blues progression in slow motion, with a few little harmonic niceties spritzed over it like so much truffle oil.

“Going to a Town” has the orchestrational and compositional thumb print of Paul McCartney all over it. The tune is catchy and great fun to sing. I don’t claim to be an authority on what Rufus says in his lyrics, but there seems to be a Dylan protest streak in him that wells up from time to time and the refrain “I’m so tired of you America” is one such manifestation of that streak. This is his “hit single” from the album, so Geffen and/or Rufus found this to have the most potential for a wide audience.

In it’s drone-like Arabic flavor “Do I Disappoint You” opens the CD in much the same way that “Agnus Dei” opened WANT TWO. The orchestration here is rather fun to follow, although this old orchestration teacher would have advised him to thin it out a bit. It is a wedge song, or a “climactic” song whose function in a concert is to create high drama. Speaking of which, take a look at the audio shapes of these Wainwright songs. Although equalization obscures the shape we actually hear, you can still see the dramatic (volume) shape of each song as a wedge.

Release the Stars

Do I Disappoint You?

An Old Whore’s Diet

Oh What a World

These shapes are interesting as they illustrate attention the overall form and flow of the song. So many pop songs have one orchestration, one volume, and are made to be heard on bad car radios. Rufus’s approach to song writing is more dramatically oriented, more concert oriented: how the song will fit into a play list on a CD or a concert. His sensitivity as to exactly where to put the power song, the love song, the kick back song, the clever song, and the naughty song should serve him well in his efforts to write his opera.

The other songs? “Release the Stars” is a climactic set-ender for live shows. “Between My Legs” is one of Rufus’s bacchanal romps. “Rules and Regulations” is a toe-tappin’ summer song. “Not Ready to Love” is his slow song for the album reminiscent of “Want.” “Slideshow” is a happier version of “Go or Go Ahead” from WANT ONE. “Tiergarten” should have been recorded on kd lang’s “Endless Summer” — that was the album where she fell in love, the edge blunted, and we got a cheery poppy album.

My prediction is that his music will split: he will write music for himself to perform, and then, if he can pull it off, write music meant for OTHERS to perform. I’m routing for you Rufus. And I am not disappointed.


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