Review: Out of the Game (Rufus Wainwright)

Out of the Game.” I see self-referencialism isn’t dead these days…

Rufus Wainwright, flamboyant son of legendary musicians Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate McGarrigle, really has been a bit out of the game lately. Before 2010’s All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, Wainwright’s last studio album was the unfocused Release the Stars in 2007, which garnered an average critical response (a resting 72/100 on Metacritic) and even less enthusiastic fan feedback. And while Songs for Lulu was quietly beautiful, it was a stark departure from the radiant baroque pop Wainwright has become known for.

2012’s Out of the Game sees a nearly-fully revived Wainwright returning to the studio with vibrant energy and unhindered creativity, by way of Poses-era orchestral sounds and trademark baroque-pop melodies. The title track single even recalls Wainright’s folk-pop influences from his early, self-titled days, with its chilled tempo and squawking guitar counterpart.

Bigger and better still are the orchestrally-escorted pieces that arrive early in the tracklist, including the Elton John-influenced “Jericho” and the lavish “Welcome to the Ball.” Where strings and trumpets (respectively) are absent, a newly-discovered love for synth sounds is largely present — Take for example, the Queen-esque “Bitter Tears.” The sunny synth initially launches the track, building a complex mid-ground layer, perfectly designed for Wainwright’s instantly-memorable melodies to arrive shortly thereafter. Later in the track — As the vocal harmony swirls begin to expand in size and volume, so does the synth rise in dynamic and drive, giving the arrangement strong texture and forceful melodic charge.

“Perfect Man,” another synth-driven masterpiece, is a characteristic display of Wainwright’s skillful melodic strengths — And while the synth is less prevalent on this track, this lessened emphasis allows more room for Wainwright’s scaling melodies to shine. Within the first 30 seconds, Wainwright’s unforgettable melodies will have the right side of your brain doing summersaults in pure, joyous ecstasy.

Not all of the tunes are as successful as the aforementioned highlights. “Barbara,” while groovy and still gratifying, is slightly weakened by substantial segments of melodic drone and a somewhat lengthy duration (“Respectable Dive” suffers from similar ailments, with the addition of a sleepy tempo). “Song of You” is somewhat lacking as well; stellar lyrics, but a fairly stale melody and a stifling tempo to counter.

Still, Wainwright’s work on Out of the Game is undeniably admirable. Enough of the tunes here shine in their creative skin that the album is worth owning in entirety (as opposed to a partial selection), and these successes should also restore any faith lost in the high-caliber songwriting of one Rufus Wainwright.

B

 

PRE-ORDER (US Release, May 1st):
CD + DVD Deluxe Set
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Review: A Wasteland Companion (M. Ward)

“And it’s joy, honey / Pure joy, uh-huh / Pure joy just to see you again…” — from “Pure Joy.”

And so it is with this pure joy that the gorgeous, aching, ageless music of M. Ward returns to our ears once more. The honey-voiced poet has spent the past few years touring and recording with two other projects: She & Him (he = M. Ward, she = Zooey Deschanel) and Monsters of Folk (a collaborative project, also featuring members of My Morning Jacket and Bright Eyes). Ward’s last solo release, Hold Time, was a seemingly-endless three years ago; and he finally returns this year with his seventh release, the trusty A Wasteland Companion.

The Companion begins with a tribute to the late, great Alex Chilton (leader of the critically-acclaimed, classic rock outfit Big Star), a tender tune with the title of “Clean Slate.” “‘Cause I only have to wait a little while before I … Get my… Clean slate.” — Ward’s classically-trained fingerpicking concurs softly thereafter. His voice sounds closer and clearer than ever, his guitar sounds more dynamic and colourful than before, and his lyrics exude classicality naturally and fluently in ways that perhaps even Post-War didn’t fully illustrate.

Mid-album track “The First Time I Ran Away” is also a mellifluous triumph for M. Ward and his Wasteland Companion. Dreamy guitar strums instantly translate to a hazy canvas background of warm mahoganies and brick reds — The bass surfaces from the depths with lush violet swirls and heavy blues. “The first time I ran away.. I saw faces in the trees.. I heard voices in the stars… They say, ‘Oooooohh, oooohhh…'” — A mist of radiant royal purples and midnight blues rain from the canvas’s northern-most borders. Little touches of electric yellow pierce the dark soundscape, carefully traced by mid-to-high register guitar notes. Distant timpani reverberations propel the masterpiece forward and forward until its winning end. It’s breathtaking, bittersweet, and absolute bliss on vinyl.

Other grand highlights include the mysterious fable “Me & My Shadow,” the palpably poignant lament “Crawl After You,” and the chilling narrative “Watch the Show.” The last of this list concerns a (presumedly fictional) television network employee who hijacks his network’s station in an attempt to seek retribution for his lost years “inserting laughter after every punch-line” — And it is a sonic delight and a lyrical masterpiece.

Accumulatively, A Wasteland Companion is another successful release from the master of timeless lo-fi. Vinyl is preferable, lossless audio is the next best thing.

★★★★☆ 4 stars (out of 5 stars)

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Review: Boys & Girls (Alabama Shakes)

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Being an Alabama resident.. Does that mean I can pretend that I knew about these folks before they were famous?

Alabama Shakes are newcomers on the indie scene, though the overwhelming hype preceding these folks makes it seem like they’ve been around for a good while now. Led by spunky, soulful Brittany Howard, Alabama Shakes forge the dirty, gritty fuzz of garage rock with the classic-era, melodic time travel of southern soul. Boys & Girls, their rowdy debut record, hits shelves today, with widespread interest and great anticipation.

Opener “Hold On,” a deceptively simple anthem filled to the brim with lively lyrical proclamations and summer-sweet guitar exclamations, is certainly a place to start. Not only is it the lead single from the record, but it has just enough energy, spirit, and originality to be hailed as one of the best tunes of the past few years (not to mention, one of this year’s best tracks).

The record follows in high-caliber pursuit — A satiable sprinkle of jazzy shuffle in “I Found You,” an instantly-memorable serving of piano-pounding vintage bluesy-pop in “Hang Loose;” and later, a bewitching bowlful of heart-wrenching, soulful howling in “Heartbreaker.”

And while the über-talented Howard carries most of these tunes with perfectly appropriate levels of sincerity and ferocity, Boys & Girls still has a few contrived moments. Howard oversells her vocal diction in parts of “Rise to the Sun,” and “You Ain’t Alone” feels slightly over-practiced in the strings department (guitar, piano and bass) yet considerably under-thought in the melody department — But neither one of the pieces are completely invalidated by their small flaws.

The record’s production is also a notable strength for the Alabama Shakes’ debut release. Ideal amounts of guitar and bass fuzz are implemented throughout the album, Howard’s voice is textured with an impeccable percent of vintage gain, and the comprehensive mix of the album cries commandingly for a vinyl purchase.

Overall, Boys & Girls is easily one of the year’s best releases. Get it.

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