Key Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes
New albums from Rufus Wainwright, Stew, and Belle and Sebastian

With all the discs I’ve burned this year and all the stuff I’ve had to listen to for Splendid, it’s amazing that I can take in anything else. Until recently, it hasn’t been a really stellar year for new music. I still love Elephant, but is it really in the same league as Scarlet’s Walk or Bachelor # 2? Fountains of Wayne’s latest starts off strong (and it’s thrilling and surreal to see “Stacy’s Mom” cracking the top 40) but peters off in its final quarter; The New Pornographers’ Electric Version is stuffed with great moments but increasingly seems a fun guilty pleasure more than a disc that will stand the test of time. Steve Wynn’s latest is undeniably one of his strongest releases, but I haven’t played it in awhile, and I find myself not missing it all that much. I’m confident that TV On The Radio is already the year’s best new artist, and I can’t wait to see what they’ll accomplish with their full-length debut, which is due next February. But, although I’ve heard some good new music from Splendid, the only really exceptional albums have come from Paul Brill, Natacha Atlas, Oranger, and maybe Northern State.

So, autumn always brings a flurry of hotly anticipated new releases, and I’ve picked up three in the last three weeks: Stew, Belle and Sebastian, and Rufus Wainwright. I’d consider each of the first two as one of my favorite artists, and with his spectacular new disc, Wainwright ascends close to that designation. Want One is a deliriously flawed record. It’s often way over the top, self-indulgent to an extreme that only an overemotive drama queen can be, and truncated in that it was originally supposed to be a double disc set simply called Want. Just like Kill Bill, it’s been cut in two, with the second disc (possibly) coming out next year.

No matter; on its own, Want One is an even greater leap forward for Wainwright than Poses was from his self-titled debut. Working with Moulin Rouge producer Marius DeVries (an ideal match), he’s more theatrical and grandiose than ever, and the larger than life backdrops here suit him well. He audaciously and stunningly cribs from Ravel’s "Bolero" for the teutonic opener, “Oh, What A World”; “14th Street” is an off-Broadway showstopper that finally fully realizes the scattered experiments on his debut; “Movies of Myself” is parts Motown, big beat and Poses’ “California”, chugging along intensely and still sounding like no one but Rufus. The key to this album’s success, I think, is alternating these opulent, phantasmagoric feats of fancy with quieter numbers like “Natasha”, the wry, slithering “Vicious World” or the chiming, sobering “11:11”.

The best moments lie in gray spaces between the intimate and the extravagant. “Dinner At Eight” acutely details Rufus’ estranged relationship with his famous father as the strings-and-piano accompaniment shifts between understated verve and dramatic eloquence. The jewel in Want One’s crown, however, is the six-minute “Go or Go Ahead”. It starts off as an acoustic lament folkish enough for his father to sing, ever-so-gradually building until it soars sky-high in the chorus, exploding in a Jim Steinman-worthy surge of vocal chorale and loud, lead electric guitar swoops. The song magically glides back to another quiet (if tense) acoustic verse, before returning to the full-barrel operatic splendor once again. It’s almost too much, but so damn effective; just try to hold back any tears when he grieves, “Look in her eyes / look in her eyes / forget about / the ones that are crying.”


Stew’s Something Deeper Than These Changes is a bit of a departure for The Negro Problem leader. It contains no songs with an off-key children’s chorus singing about re-hab, or odes to “girls who carry switchblades and are very well-read.” It’s his most personal and musically minimalist statement to date. As opposed to Guest Host’s baroque pop cornucopia and The Naked Dutch Painter’s innovative live band with studio overdub configurations, the songs here are mostly acoustic guitar-centered, with occasional sparse keyboards and unobtrusive drum machines. Although Stew still has a way with a playful phrase (cue the call-and-response “Mind The Noose and Fair Thee Well”), the bulk of Something Deeper Than These Changes is, as the title suggests, introspective and dead serious.

It all comes as a shock after Naked Dutch…, which was more playful, accessible, and diverse, not to mention one of my favorite albums of last year. After the initial jolt wore off, I have to admit it’s been growing on me, albeit slowly. Stew’s gargantuan talent is ever present; in anyone else’s hands, “The Sun I Always Wanted” could come off as cute and cloying, but here, it’s succinct and touching. “The Constellation Jeeves” continues the Marvin Gaye meets Abbey Road drawl of “Reeling”, only with more spiritual than lustful concerns. Once you realize exactly what “Statue Song” is about, it seems flat-out brilliant. Leadoff track “Love Like That” is his finest ballad to date, and, like most of the album, it uses cohort Heidi Rodewald’s sweet counterpart vocal to great effect. “Kingdom of Drink” is an odd, droll hangover; “L.A. Arteest Café” is very nearly the only track here that could’ve easily fit on Naked Dutch…; it’s probably even more autobiographical than that album’s title track, and, more importantly, it approaches a comfortable pop perfection with an ever-growing subtlety that makes The Negro Problem albums sound strained in comparison.

Maybe the title reflects a newfound complexity in Stew’s music. I still prefer Naked Dutch… and know that few records in my collection belong in its company. But I’m willing to go the distance with this follow-up. Its sustained solemnity makes me hope he’ll show his more jovial side again soon, but even this record is not entirely lacking in wordplay and senses of humor and the absurd that mark most of the man’s work. The more I listen, the more I’m beginning to see this as an essential addition to Stew’s catalog.


Belle and Sebastian’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress just came out this week, and I need more time to absorb it before I write a complete review. Let me just say that I feared the worst, that unlikely producer Trevor Horn would ruin their sound and make a wildly inappropriate, slickly buffed catastrophe of an album, continuing the downward spiral the band has presumably been on after If You're Feeling Sinister (truth: while each album has been less interesting than the last, they’ve come up with a handful of dazzling moments, especially the “I’m Waking Up To Us” single.)

This album is certain to divide fans and receive a few isolated cries of “sellout!”, but if it’s the most polished and happiest set from Stuart and co., it’s also their most focused and consistent since Sinister. It has its missteps (acidic lyrics aren’t enough to save the-title-says-it-all “If You Find Yourself Caught In Love”), but I can already detect an impressive quantity of classic moments (“Step Into My Office Baby”, “I’m A Cuckoo”, the warped but strangely gratifying “Stay Loose”) and the acoustic “Piazza, New York Catcher” briefly recaptures Sinister’s spark. But, for the most part, what makes it all work is the band is no longer content to merely recycle the past with diminishing results, as they did on the last few records (for example, the title track of Storytelling was merely textbook B. (and) S.). Here, they’re pushing their sound forward towards bold, new territories, while hanging on to a smidgen of the essence that made them stand out from the indie-pop crowd in the first place. They’ll never make another Sinister, but now they’re finally proving capable of creating something else that potentially could be nearly as arresting.