It's that weird time of year: the grey area between Winter and Spring, a point in the calendar that typically finds us hunkered-down, watching too much TV, eating too much junk. We're both busy with work, so we're staying up late, sleeping-in, and being generally . . . lazy and antisocial. Even our homecooked meals have been replaced with on-the-run bagels and late-night Wendy's binges.
Needless to say, I haven't had much to blog about.
But there's a lot going on in music right now, at least where my tastes lie. Rufus Wainwright released his stripped-down follow-up to 2007's epic Release the Stars. All the Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu takes him back to basics, just voice and piano. He calls it a "palette-cleanser", an interlude before he unleashes another operatic, orchestral opus ("an onslaught" as he says) sometime in 2011. Though still as flowery as you might expect, it's tidy and plaintive.
He covers all the usual territory (Mother, Father, Love, Loss and New York City) on Lulu, but unencumbered by the pomp and circumstance of a 60-piece orchestra. He describes the album as the "sacrifice of [his] dark lady", a chance to purge some of his demons at a critical juncture. His mother, the famed Kate McGarrigle, died early this year, and many of the songs reference her battle with cancer, the slow demise of a powerful character in his life. The voicemail-set-to-music, "Martha", is an intimate look into this world, the McGarrigle-Wainwright dynasty, one notoriously riddled with baggage. "Martha, it's your Brother calling, time to go up north and see Mother; things are harder for her now, and neither of us is really that much older than each other anymore." Jaunty and rhythmic, like Dr. Seuss therapy, the song dances along atop classic Wainwright keyboards. For me, one of the great moments on the album, and, actually, of his career.
Lulu includes three of Shakespeare's sonnets, which Wainwright set to music for a song cycle last year. Their placement on the album feels right, putting himself in appropriate poetic company. The album also showcases "Les feux d'artifice t'appellent", the closing aria from his opera Prima Donna, which makes its North American debut this summer at Toronto's Luminato Festival. (See you there.)
The whole album is exactly as pompous and drippy as I'm making it sound, but that's what's so beautiful about it. He's not for everyone, to say the very least, but he's so for me.
(Images above taken from this.)
On the less fruity end of the musical spectrum is folky English singer-songwriter Laura Marling. She's part of the musical-clique that spewed Noah and the Whale, Mumford and Sons (who I wrote about last year on These Roving Ears) and others, and at just 20 years old, her new album (I Speak Because I Can) sounds like something a veteran would create. Produced by Ethan Johns (who worked on all of Ray LaMontagne's fantastic records) it's beautifully assembled. To my ear, there's Alison Krauss, Neko Case and Joni Mitchell at-play here, mixing bluegrass and muted 60s-era folk beautifully. Her voice vacillates between quiet neurosis and confident strength, the album dynamic and layered. If you're familiar with LaMontagne or Mumford and Sons, the collaborations are audible, at times stompy and danceable, aggressively backwoodsy. Nods to Americana, but decidedly British in mood and tone.
It's been a while since I've heard a song like "Rambling Man", my hands fumbling to restart the song every time it ends. I can't even pinpoint what makes it a perfect song for me; it's simple, all verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus, but Marling bites at each word, precise and clear. The harmonies sit in a sonic attic somewhere, reverberating way off and spooky. And with a haunting bridge ("And it's hard to accept yourself as someone you don't desire, as someone you don't want to be."), this is the sorta shit that gets me every time.
(Images from the gorgeous video for "Rambling Man")