Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Release the Stars, by Rufus Wainwright

1 Do I Disappoint You 4:40
2 Going to a Town 4:06
3 Tiergarten 3:26
4 Nobody's Off the Hook 4:27
5 Between My Legs 4:26
6 Rules and Regulations 4:05
7 I'm Not Ready to Love 5:51
8 Slideshow 6:21
9 Tulsa 2:19
10 Leaving for Paris No.2 4:52
11 Sanssouci 5:16
12 Release the Stars 5:20

My Review of Release the Stars

Absence doesn't always make the heart grow fonder, particularly while waiting several years for Rufus to release a CD while he'd rather be prancing around with his Judy Garland tribute. Let's face it, his previous 2004 Want Two hardly left his reputation on a high point. Despite some audacious baroque pop highlights, it felt like warmed-up leftovers from Want One.
    Insider gossips, leading up to the release of this CD said that Release the Stars was sounding 'fabulous', but to me the 'Going To A Town' leak on YouTube sounded handsome and yet mundane. Should I even buy the CD? I wondered at one point, however with a holiday imminent I was looking for new music so my MP3 was well stocked for the travels, and this just had to be one of them.
    My first impression was that sonically this is as beautifully produced and performed as any record you'll hear... just listen to the quality of the strings and horns, mostly arranged by Maestro Rufus himself. Despite the musical bombast of Do I Disappoint You, the opener, I must respond with yes it does a little. I'm not convinced by the lyrics, and it's hardly Rufus's most elegant melody.
    'Going to a Town' improves with a few listens, but it still strikes me as formulaic until a free ranging chord sequence in the latter part.
    Things perk up with 'Tiergarten' a lugubrious summer pop song, with a rhythm that seemed perfectly suited to my first listens to it on long distance trains in Poland and Ukraine. Could this be a hit? No doubt it will be in Berlin. Has a park ever had a better song written about it? Let me know!
    'Nobody's Off The Hook' proclaims Rufus on the fourth track, backed by an exquisite string quartet. The tune is good, Rufus's singing is good, but the title reminds me of Big Brother a couple of years back.
    Next up is the trademark Rufus that people love and hate in equal measure. 'Between My Legs' commences with the kind of verse that any old pop group could write, a simple repetitive melody set square over its rhythm. And then it reaches its second theme and Rufus leaves the aforementioned pop group trailing in his wake as the song takes off with a change of pace and a vibrant tune. The grand chorus that follows is excellent with Rufus's vocals soaring against a huge and exciting backing, which then repeats with Sian Phillips speaking the words as if its something out of King Lear. Seemingly there's nowhere to go after that, but the signature chromatic tune of Phantom of The Opera seems so appropriate. This song is great fun, there's no denying it.
     Coming after such musical high jinks, the mid-tempo pop of 'Rules and Regulations' seems low key, but taking it in isolation, it's one of the CD's highlights. Nice lyrics, and a great trumpet duet sequence in the breaks.
     'Not Ready For Love' is the slowest song in this collection, and finds Rufus singing in his upper register (a la David Gates of Bread). One of the good things about Want One was that the slower ballads were also the shorter songs, whereas at nearly six minutes this one drags.
    Not to worry, normal bombast is resumed in 'Slideshow'. The strummed opening verse and high-drama chorus calls to mind the searing 'Go or Go Ahead' but the subject is rather lighter here, enlivened by the esteemed Richard Thompson's guitar noodling. The opening lyric is simple but highly effective:
Do I love you
Because you treat me so indifferently?
Or is it the medication?
Or is it me?

    One of the most talked-about tracks 'Tulsa', with its eyebrow raising lyrics and Eleanor Rigby style backing, is ultimately a shallow throwaway. Seeking to make a point about another performer is indulgent even by Rufus and baroque pop standards!
    I've found the previous Rufus albums to be front-loaded as far as good songs go, but this time the album ends with the strongest sequence, starting with 'Leaving for Paris No. 2' (no, I don't recall the first one either!). Vocal backing aside, it's the most stripped-back song in this collection, just Rufus on piano and Jeff Hill on bass (the upright type). This is one of the disk's musical highlights for me, the piano chords shift between keys to great effect, and Jeff Hill's multi-tracked bass adding great atmosphere. The song finishes with a long 'goodbye!' that recalls the Sound of Music (the one where the kids are on the stairs.) A little gem, and if Rufus ever delivers the basic album he's long promised, this points to something very fine indeed.
    Rufus has a real talent for elegant mid-tempo pop, which is amply demonstrated on 'Sanssouci'. I like the way the melody shifts and progresses in each successive line. With such a strong and infectious tune, the backing of fluttering flutes is superfluous, and yet delightful.
    Finally we get a slice of big band bombast with the title track 'Release The Stars'. With its raunchy rhythm, blowsy trumpets and choir of female backing vocals this is a turn-up-the-stereo blast. A fitting finale!
    ...except of course for the dreaded bonus tracks. My copy features a voiceless Do I Disappoint You, but other buyers appear to have different songs. Based on my experience of the bonus tracks which litter RW's back catalog I don't expect I'm missing anything.
    And what of the artwork? It's exceptionally poor. Someone should tell Rufus that lederhosen isn't a great look. I'd rather have the lyrics printed at a readable size in place of the surfeit of lederhosen and gnome pics.
    This is a good CD, not a great one. The unloveable Do I Disappoint You, the dragging Not Ready For Love and the throwaway Tulsa, together with some unappealing lyrics elsewhere, are more than enough to bring the rating down. If you're looking for Rufus's first truly classic CD, you'll have to wait a while longer. But, with its grand, stimulating music and clever tunes, I still recommend this as an essential baroque pop purchase.


Observer Music Monthly