The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

For such an apparently wide open record the question has to be: what is Rufus Wainwright hiding from? I’ve lived with Release The Stars for about a month now and am still no closer to finding the answer. But the songs’ endlessly ecstatic orchestral climaxes suggest a happiness which doesn’t actually exist within their singer. He has already said that the album documents his turbulent love life over the last couple of years, and maybe it’s when he’s more settled that he’s free to deliver his best work.

This doesn’t mean that Release The Stars is stripped of any merit. Yet one has to wonder about how far he has travelled in a song like “Do I Disappoint You?” wherein he tosses himself like a human duvet during surf’s up, confounding his temporary Other’s expectations of what he is supposed to be, the conflict delineated by sister Martha’s sudden eruptions on key words like “fire,” “water” and “chaos”; despite the grand Richard Strauss-quoting finale, Rufus still seems stuck in the synth bass growl and circulatory drone which introduce the song, even though he travels through raga, saloon bar piano, Stravinsky and psychedelia to reach the end.

Of course I don’t mind Rufus pumping up his music with elegiac richness – in this deflated age of “approachable” musicians who are “just like us” (a complete misunderstanding of punk, since “we” could never have hoped to be John Lydon or even Jimmy Pursey), someone has to “overdo” the sauce – but when doing so symbolises an effort at purposeful detachment from staring life in the face then questions must be asked. The carotid bruit of a rocker which is “Between My Legs” (as in “I’ll shed a tear…”) muses over a dreamed long-distance reunion with apparent joyfulness – Richard Thompson’s guitar, as ever, patrolling and embracing the song’s surface – but then, at the line “underneath the town towards the sea,” the beat cuts out and dissolves momentarily, then a banjo begins to pluck and Sian Phillips, of all people, starts hamming the song’s final stanza for all she’s worth (a touch which must without doubt have stemmed from the album’s executive producer Neil Tennant) and probably doing her best to avoid thinking about Peter O’Toole in the process.

The best of these superficially brash songs is “Slideshow” where you almost forget about Rufus’ umming and ahhing (“Because I paid a lot of money to get you over here you know”) and start listening to what Richard Thompson is doing; musically he is definitely the album’s man of the match, as he abruptly breaks the balladic mourning with some Derek Bailey scraping to allow the entrance of Steven Bernstein’s horn section. The rest of the track seesaws between bold brass proclamations and Thompson’s now-can’t-we-be-reasonable-lads controlled playing. Eventually Thompson wins, as Rufus overcomes himself to take the song back down to its final quietude with his “Do I love you? (pause) “Yes I do,” sotto voce over Don Levine’s querulous trombone. The title track, too, is an artful exercise; even if it’s merely Rufus moaning about The Media System, its soundtrack is a brilliant history of pop in reverse, starting with sixties Brill Building organ and staccato guitar, joined by Stax horns, but then moving into Stan Kenton stabs of brashness until we finally achieve a Busby Berkeley ending with full orchestra and chorus. At his most seemingly lighthearted, Rufus is never short of ideas; the hilarious, Randy Newman-esque bitching of “Tulsa” is echoed by a continuously mocking string section commentary, while “Rules And Regulations” drives along, and sometimes springs up unexpectedly (“Not to mention the GODS!!”) with Mariachi trumpets, another trombone obbligato, a recorder playing the main melody line and a wobbly 1972 synth.

Yet it’s where he slows down that Release The Stars finally releases something resembling true emotion. He may conclude the McCartney-ish “Nobody’s Off The Hook” with an offhand mutter of “oh boy!” (and thereby segueing into Joan Wasser’s “Oh my God!” to introduce “Between My Legs”) but the initially accusatory nature of the song, with its harmonically ambiguous strings (at the phrase “little boy blue”) slowly settles into something approaching true compassion; note Wainwright’s infinite regret on the line “and you’ll believe it.” “Sanssouci”, too, is on its surface an agreeable bubblegum tango which Engelbert might have sung, but there are those ghostly backing vocal breaths on the phrase “the stables there,” the slight discordancy in guitar lines at “elegies in general” – and as Wainwright enters this presumed palace, hoping to meet his long-lost love, the music gradually vapourises and dissolves around him as he realises that the place is utterly empty, and most likely ruined. Similarly, “Tiergarten” is a lovely, marimba-led melody which disguises its central metaphor of “getting to the other side of town” – in other words, walk with me through the pain and rain; the sudden minor shift on “I have suffered shipwreck” leading to the climactic, onomatopoeic harp of “Even if it’s raining,” but at the end, again the dream becomes dissolute puddles of unfulfilled hope.

That leaves the three songs which concern themselves, openly or allegorically, with the state of America, and these are the record’s truest achievements. The most open of these is “Going To A Town” in which Rufus bitterly surveys the ruination of his land: “I’m so tired of America,” “You took advantage of a world that loved you well,” “I’m going to a town that has already been burnt down” – from the opening cymbal sigh to the steady, stolid procession of the rhythm track, into which intermittently burst call and response backing vocals, strings and Thompson’s lead guitar, as though watching and cheering (or mourning) from the sidelines, to Wainwright’s never closer vocal resemblance to Thom Yorke, the song requires no overstatement or embellishment.

Then there are the lovesick/sick of love songs – “Not Ready To Love” is (so he says) about a would-be old flame but its slow, aching hurt (Thompson’s diving weep behind the line “I’m not ready to surrender,” mother Kate McGarrigle’s stately, unhurried piano, Tennant his own ghost on distant backing vocals, the calmest and most restrained string arrangement on the album) all lead to the notion of the song being sung by America in the first person – “I’m not ready for peace/I’m giving up the dove to the beast” – and then, in direct response to the accusations levelled in “Going To A Town,” Rufus ends, in quiet, poignant bewilderment, with “I’m not ready to love/Until I’m ready to love you/The way you should be loved.” It could almost be used for Bush’s abdication speech. The song is enormously moving.

Finally there is “Leaving For Paris No 2,” which addresses a second person which might as well be Burton Cummings’ American Woman; “I pray you won’t follow/Through the crooked streets behind me,” “Just you try to take care of yourself” being his semi-friendly warning as Jeff Hill’s multitracked string basses undulate like the waves of the impending English Channel. Here he is nakedly himself, and here is where he is strongest. I doubt whether Release The Stars will be as regularly revisited as Want Two, which now seems to me more than ever his masterpiece thus far, a perfect balance of directness and cloaking, or revelatory, humour…but for the moments when he drops the shield and allows himself to breathe, and maybe to cry, I’m far from done with it yet.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Maybe it’s indicative of a general spiritual poverty that one is tempted, when presented with Imagine Our Love, the debut album by LA quartet Lavender Diamond, to look for the angle, the giveaway wink. After all, here is a record which comes dressed in lilac and swimmingly drawn, ecstatic faces in a post-urban paradise, which proclaims on its cover, “SONGS for you to HEAR,” “SONGS for you to SING” and “SONGS for you to LISTEN.” On the rear is a picture of the band in a woodland glade, half obscured by leaves and branches; three earnest-looking men in suits and ties seated respectively at a keyboard, a stripped-down drumkit and an acoustic guitar, while gambolling with them, arms waving in the Woodstock ’69 air, is singer Becky Stark. Becky appears again on the back of the CD booklet, doing the Maria von Trapp pose with Hollywood glinting far beneath her. The booklet itself is all elegant handwriting and plaintive line drawings, along with fervent entreaties to “Come out! Come out and play!” and “Peace for ever and ever and Now! Love…” (they like their exclamation marks). At the centre of the CD itself is the legend, “Peace on Earth forever.” As Barry Manilow is apt to say about nearly everyone and everything, “But where’s the angle?”

Well, if there is an angle to Lavender Diamond, I haven’t found it, and having listened to their album multiple times I’m rather ashamed of myself for thinking that there ever might have been. Because Lavender Diamond mean it; the first person plural in Imagine Our Love means “the world” or “humanity,” and overall the record more than fulfils its ambition of a musical balm of solace, a tender embrace to help rescue tired or damaged souls and lift them up to somewhere and something better.

But of course it would be worthless if it had just been “pretty.” There is true beauty throughout Imagine Our Love, but never are we allowed to forget just how hard won such beauty and harmony tend to be. Musically you could, at a long stretch, locate them in the Cowboy Junkies/Mazzy Star ballpark…but the way the group handles its modest resources, and in great particular Becky Stark’s voice, make it something unprecedented.

And Becky Stark’s voice is something special. The opener “Oh No” begins with a slowed down “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” rhythm with added Pharaoh Sanders bells before Ron Regé Jr’s drums (he’s also responsible for all the artwork) suddenly impose their authority (so it turns into a slightly mellower “Wake Up”). Stark’s contralto is incredibly pure; there are strong hints of the influence of the Sundays’ Harriet Wheeler in her higher range, but there is something peculiarly parallel to the opening of the Amerie album in its sad observation that “It’s such a sad and grey day” before Stark goes into a mantra of “When will I love again?” over very minimal but deep accompaniment; again and again she sings the line, in some cases with a barely suppressed sob ebbing out of the “again.” Then you read the sleevenote and find that the song was written on “the day the first bombs fell on Baghdad.” It is devastating.

“The Garden Rose” also proceeds placidly, with huge Patti Page strings and a loping C&W ballad rhythm – no, not that far away from Judee Sill – with Stark’s voice sweet but resolute, the question mark underlined by the totally unexpected chord change every fourth bar. She sings of latent regret but quiet underlying determination – “I’ll never stop a bullet, but a bullet might stop me” – before resorting to a lonesome “owoo-hoo” elongated, ethereal vocal. Note how her voice chokes up on “through” in the line “And I’ll never sweep the alley, though the alley might be clean” – and again we learn that this peacefully tormented song is “our battle cry!…a love song, and a song of revolt!” Rebellion comes in many forms, and the most persuasive is usually the least obvious. “My Shadow Is A Monday” follows much the same pattern, though it is a muted prayer of rejection of the forces which compel people, bind them into jobs they hate, lifestyles they can neither afford nor need.

Many of the songs deploy long-held repetition to a degree that they do seem like invocatory prayers, slowly nudging the revelation along. The heartbreaking “I’ll Never Lie Again” relies on just a few observations – “Oh God,” “I tried so many times to get truth out of a lie” – repeated so dreamily and so despondently that you want to weep, despite the song opening up for the strings and woodwinds to come in on Stark’s “ba-ba-ba-ba”s. Likewise, “Like An Arrow” has just one motif, “Oh, like an arrow, closer” echoed over a trip hop loop – and yet it somehow manages to say everything.

Sometimes they up the tempo; both “Side Of The Lord,” their rueful “comedy song” about political indecision, and “Here Comes One” are strangely reminiscent in structure and outlook to Ray Davies, though with added teeth if needed – observe the piano which starts angrily hammering on the line “Oh, you walk down the street, and you work so hard!” immediately succeeded by Stark’s own, unexpectedly strident howl of “Well, let me tell you!”

But the slowest burning songs cut the deepest. “Dance Until Tomorrow” rises very gradually, steadily and logically over its six minutes or so, like an even more patient Fairport Convention, until the emotion cumulates in the emphatic “see” of “I can see this road is forever!” “Find A Way,” a friendly warning to their home city not to kill itself (“You find a way – to love!”), is the most obviously Cowboy Junkies-esque song here, but feel those strings which emerge from the ocean on the line “rising to meet you” and the song’s closing resolution of bells. “When You Wake For Certain,” the closer, is the record’s most harmonically adventurous song – the “ba ba”s here again remind me of Stereolab – leading to a ruefully smiling singalong about “falling so far – into the night,” in other words, out of the cradle of childhood into the harsher realities of life. Once more an emotional peak is reached with Stark’s wordless voice – of lament, or of promise – and the song’s central question “When you wake for certain, will you still be hurting?” reflected by its closing question mark of a three-part harmonic descent at song’s, and record’s end, as if to say: well, it’s up to you, but if I were you I’d come and join us. If humanity looks out for each other and catches our various falls, then we cannot hurt.

And the album’s glorious apex is “Bring Me A Song.” In the notes, Stark says, simply, “For tenderness – that’s what we live for – for tenderness – every moment – there are no moments to spare!” and this song, another slowly-ascending epic, captures and liberates that emotion perfectly. Starting out as a simple piano waltz, Stark again prays for salvation (“Bring me a song/Something to feel/Bring me a song/Please make it real/Bring me a song/I need to heal”) but finds that she is also the saviour, because of course she is singing to the listener…”Nowhere to go? Come with me. No one to be? Be with me. Nothing to say? Speak from the heart. Nowhere to rest? Rest in my arms.”

And all the while the emotional power is slowly, ever so carefully building up…and when the first triumphant key change occurs (at 3.23) and Stark’s voice becomes more passionate and inviting you feel you have been saved – go on, just follow the light – and yet again, after the climactic “Nowhere to go?” the song changes to yet a higher key (with infinitely less fuss, and infinitely more meaning, than, say, Oasis’ “All Around The World”) and with her final, blessed “Rest in my arms,” French horn and trombone emerge for a stately coda and I collapse, tired but finally free, into your arms. If you remember the unending hug that Kate Bush gave to Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” then the whole of Imagine Our Love is a musical extension of that hug; don’t doubt, don’t look for any angle, just believe, radiate that belief in your own, newly confident light…and life and love await, renewed and endless.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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