In hindsight, the ambitiously anachronistic Great American Songbook-isms of Rufus Wainwright’s 1998 debut obscured its weaknesses. I listen to it now and wonder how I could’ve overlooked the mush-mouthed mumbling and faux-operatic swoops, the silly parlor piano, or the shapelessness of some of the songs. But he had, and still has, a superb gift for melody, crafting elusive, liquid hooks that sound like little else in the current pop landscape–and on his terrific follow-up, Poses (Dreamworks), they’re framed with the precision they deserve. The album employs five different producers, but it still sounds much more coherent than his debut, produced almost entirely by LA pop guru Jon Brion. From the seemingly awkward breakbeat Alex Gifford of Propellerheads inserts into the opening of “Shadows” to the mix of toy piano, fuzz bass, and soaring strings on “Evil Angel,” everything eventually reveals its purpose. And though Wainwright sings–in multitracked harmonies as well as those sweet melodies–with a newfound precision, he hasn’t lost his appealing casualness. The lyrics loosely tell a gay coming-of-age tale, a tumble of debauchery, tenderness, confusion, sorrow, and Wainwright’s hereditary wit. The album’s opener, “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” is a darkly humorous investigation of the thin line between vice and self-destruction, while the title track catches him “drunk and wearing flip-flops on Fifth Avenue.” And his love-hate relationship with the west coast is summed up hilariously in “California”: “I don’t know this sea of neon, thousand surfers, whiffs of freon and my new grandma Bea Arthur.” But as good as this album is, it’s clear that he’s still got plenty of room for his abundant talent to grow. Roxy Music headlines. Monday, July 30, 7:30 PM, Allstate Arena, 6920 Mannheim, Rosemont; 847-635-6601 or 312-559-1212.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ken Schles.