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January 28, 2005

 

The soothing sounds of variety

New releases range from Rufus Wainwright to drag queens singing Abba

“Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,” wrote William Congreve in his play The Mourning Bride, “to soften rocks or bend a knotted oak.”

Whether it can, indeed, change the density of stone or topple a tree, popular music is an integral and ubiquitous part of most people’s lives.

Voices familiar and new sing out, creating the soundtrack to lives as they’re being lived. In that light, it might be time to see what’s playing in the background of the current reel.

Want Two, Rufus Wainwright’s follow-up to the 2003 album Want One, continues the second-generation musician’s love affair with song. From the Eastern-inflected “Agnus Dei” to the string-quartet-backed “Little Sister,” Wainwright proves once again that he is at the top of the game for vocalists.

The fact that he has been open and honest about his homosexuality for the vast majority of his career, forthcoming about his battles with alcohol and is still able to do what he wants, when he wants, is a testimony to his skill as an artist and will as a human.

The album also contains a live DVD filmed at the Fillmore in San Francisco, an extra treat for fans.

For some a less familiar face, for others an old friend, Grian Grillo’s Stomping Back on Fire, out on Spitshine Records, features the return of the openly gay, openly HIV-positive former lead singer of Extra Fancy.

For those who never heard of Extra Fancy, check the local new and used record store. Arista Records, despite promising major promotion for the rock/punk band’s album Sinnerman, devoted little time and energy into selling it.

Listening to Stomping Back on Fire is, in a way, like listening to Ozzy Osborne covering Burt Bacharach songs: most of the album is fairly mellow-sounding and acoustic. However, the anger and passion behind the songwriting dispels any doubts as to whether Grillo is still the same rock-and-roll diehard he was with Extra Fancy. And the hidden track, a remix of the title track, should be on everyone’s iPod. Grillo will also be releasing another album in the next month or so.

Now, for those who prefer piano to guitar, Keyth Lawrence and the Purple Circle’s Figures, on I Said! Records, might be just the thing.

Some sort of gay love-child of Tori Amos and Billy Joel, much of Lawrence’s album lives up to the title of Sugar’s record File Under Easy Listening. Lawrence is a capable piano player and a journeyman singer, but at times the songs seem a touch . . . boring, perhaps? No, that would be too unkind. A number of the songs start off as if they are going to be more rock and roll, and then the piano comes in and they lose all momentum. However, others, most notably “Mission,” are just very strong, well-crafted songs.

Nipping at the heels of the Scissor Sisters as the musical gay darling of New York City’s art music scene is Antony and the Johnsons, with their album I Am a Bird Now, out on Secretly Canadian.

Antony’s album is filled with transgender Nina Simone-esquery. If fact, were Antony and the Johnsons not already recording by the time Simone died, one could on certain tracks be forgiven for thinking she had been reincarnated as Antony. The music itself fits in with the late Ms. Simone’s oeuvre, that bluesy-jazzy, heart-rendingly beautiful music that defined more than one generation. Antony and the Johnsons can be to LGBT rights what Nina was to the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s.

Josh Zuckerman’s A Totally New Sensation is, so far, the most upbeat album in this review. Somewhere in the sphere of alt-pop, Zuckerman evokes comparisons to acts as diverse as the Smithereens, the Spin Doctors and Charlie Daniels.

Charlie Daniels is included because Zuckerman covers “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” as the last track on the album. It’s not up to snuff with the original or different enough to really be appreciated on its own merits, but that’s the exception, not the rule, on this album.

Okay, there is something just slightly more upbeat than the almost terminally energetic-sounding Zuckerman, although one is hesitant to mention it.

Some might be thrilled by it, others horrified. It’s Abbalicious, released by FigJam Entertainment, a collection of tracks by ten top New York City drag performers covering, you guessed it, Abba songs. God help us all.

Hedda Lettuce’s “Gimme Gimme Gimme” walks the fine line between sublime and surreal, while Connie Cat’s “Money Money Money” holds fairly true to the original and is a thoroughly enjoyable track, sort of what would have been in Torch Song Trilogy were it written twenty years later than it was.

Yolanda Lynn and Hedda Lynn, America’s favorite drag country duo Chixie Dix, not only do a C&W version of “Dancing Queen,” they take the previous track to introduce and explain the song.

Yes, somewhere between rolling on the floor laughing and stumbling backwards, screaming in terror, lies Abbalicious. It’s absolutely not going to soothe any breast, savage or otherwise, but it would probably liven up a party.

 

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