fri 23/02/2024

Album: Rufus Wainwright - Folkocracy | reviews, news & interviews

Album: Rufus Wainwright - Folkocracy

Album: Rufus Wainwright - Folkocracy

He does it his way

It's all about Rufus, of course

"This album is almost like a recorded birthday party and birthday present to myself. I just invited all the singers that I greatly admire and always wanted to sing with." So says Rufus Wainwright, a brilliant and compelling performer – and one, you suspect, who brooks few challenges, be they from family, friends, or producers. And someone needed to tell him that Folkocracy is often a tad OTT. Rather more than a tad actually.

There are some lovely moments but rarely is the singer subservient to the song. On this album, it’s all about Rufus. Me, me, me. Striking poses, seeking attention, showing off. Being ever so camp. My dear, the histrionics! The point of folk music is entirely lost.

As the title suggests, Folkocracy is a homage to his own folk roots as part of Canada’s royal family of folk. The idea was conceived during the long wait through the 2021 Grammys. “I’ve shied away from folk in the past,” Rufus explains, “preferring the worlds of opera and pop. But the fact is I’m from a bona fide folkocracy who mixed extensively with other folkocracies such as the Seegers and the Thompsons. As I hurtle towards 50, I’m back where it all began.”

So here we are, and of course it was a pretty amazing start in life, Rufus no doubt dandled on many an illustrious lap backstage at Newport, Mariposa, Philadelphia…  And now he’s called up a few friends, all of them on speed-dial. Brandi Carlile, John Legend, Chaka Khan, David Byrne, Anohni, Sheryl Crow, Susanna Hoffs, Chris Stills, Nicole Scherzinger and Van Dyke Parks, plus of course his aunt, Anna McGarrigle, sister Martha, and half-sister Lucy. But this is not an album of duets – rather, everyone’s a guest.

It’s a real curate’s egg, an idiosyncratic selection of songs with some lovely tracks but others just too wearing to contemplate repeated listenings. “Twelve-Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)” is an all-star tribute to the Mamas and the Papas, the song inspired by Laurel Canyon to which the group had returned from “dark and dirty” New York, where “California Dreaming” had been written. A great cover… but maybe just listen to the original instead?  “Down in the Willow Garden” is a beautiful song, murder, and mayhem in the great folk tradition, but Wainwright is so strident and to the fore that Carlile is overwhelmed. “Shenandoah”, a song originating with early 19th century fur traders, is overwrought to the point of destruction. “Arthur McBride”, while indeed musically clever, is just so terribly show-offy.

Neil Young’s “Harvest” is beautifully hamonised, with some heart-rending fiddle. Wainwright’s reedy voice is just too overpowering, as it is also on “Hush Little Baby” – a lullaby, remember, yet it builds to a climax! But that reedy dominance and vibrato works well on “Going to a Town”, from Wainwright’s 2007 album Release the Stars. He’s joined here by Anohni, “Black Gold”, the title track from Van Dyke Parks’ 2011 album, with its hints of Brecht, is a bitter attack on Big Oil though the dance rhythms and fairground mood evoked as it whirls towards its climax, like a swimmer caught in the vortex, disguise the seriousness of the message. Here the Wainwright pipes and style are well-suited to the song’s camp irony.

“Wild Mountain Thyme”, which closes the album, is a folk classic and Rufus grew up singing it. The version here really is a family affair, recorded in Montreal with family friend Chaim Tannenbaum playing Rufus’s late mother Kate’s iconic banjo. And it is a heartfelt and tasteful conclusion.

It’s a real curate’s egg, an idiosyncratic selection of songs with some lovely tracks but others just too wearing

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Editor Rating: 
2
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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