Rufus Wainwright: Rufus Wainwright (25th Anniversary) [Classic Album Revisit]

Rufus Wainwright
Rufus Wainwright (25th Anniversary Edition)

Released: May 19, 1998/Reissue: May 19, 2023
Producer: Jon Brion, Pierre Marchand
Length: 53:26/Reissue: 1:36:00

When the self-titled debut, Rufus Wainwright came out in 1998 it won high praise from numerous music critics for its uniquely romantic piano balladry but sold very modestly. The son of established musical artists, Wainwright was the recipient of media attention because his father was American folk singer/songwriter Loudon Wainwright III and his mother was Kate McGarrigle, part of a Canadian folk duo with her sister Anne. He was a popular touring artist that summer, and the album was included in numerous end of year “best of” critic’s lists, and won the Canadian version of the Grammys, a Juno Award for the Best Alternative Album.

The album opens with the richly poetic love ballad, “Foolish Love,” which starts out with the singer alone on his piano but develops into the dramatic orchestration of Van Dyke Parks written to match Wainwright’s sophisticated piano score, and lush tenor voice. Jon Brion, who’d worked with Of Montreal, Aimee Mann, and Fiona Apple, produced 11 of the album’s original 12 tracks, serving the old-world vibe of Wainwright’s balladry, that one critic compared to 1920’s cabaret musical feel in some places. While the label didn’t promote any singles, a video of “April Love” was made, and the song has a Beatlesque feel and one of those big sing-along choruses, with the obvious crowd pleasing line that “You will believe in love,” with Rufus’ sister Martha singing along in the background.

“In My Arms” is the one track produced and mixed by Pierre Marchand, again with Martha singing harmony on drinking song chorus, but it’s a heartbreaker of a sad lost love song. Parks brings his majestic orchestration to two more tracks, “Millbrook” and “Baby,” the first more up-tempo, the latter a real weeper. “Beauty Mark” has a touch of camp, but is a love song to his mother, and is played for fun. The exotic musicality of “Matinee Idol,” was said to be inspired by the late-actor River Phoenix. “Damned Ladies” is a sad ballad sung to the sad women characters in operas who seem routinely destined to die prematurely. The record opened reflecting on ill-fated “Foolish Love” and ends with the longing implied in “Imaginary Love.”

For the 25th Anniversary edition, the entire album has been remastered, and the sound improves, with crisper tones and greater musical clarity heard in the instrumentation. Added to the original 12 tracks are 10 outtakes from those same session, seven of which had appeared in the 2011 box set, “House of Rufus.” These bonus tracks include what appears to be a re-imagined version of “St. James Infirmary,” that’s familiar in construction to the traditional blues song sung early on by the likes of Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald, later covered by Janis Joplin and The White Stripes, but clearly tapping Wainwright’s sense of heartbreak over a “cowboy.”

The one track has lots of horns and guitars and feels like it might have fit easily on the original album, “A Bit of You,” which again has one of those big sing-songy choruses. Of the seven previously released tracks, the version of Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” hints at Wainwright’s major influences as this was another that was sung by Ella. The three completely new-to-us tracks are sound like demos simply recorded live, “So Fine” has some complicated piano chords that don’t always quite work, while Rufus appears to be testing the full reach of his vocal range from very deep to holding high notes as long as his breath allows. “Come” is on acoustic guitar, a folky ballad, while “More Wine” sounds like a song you write while drinking when the bottle is empty. While not credited it sounds like Martha has joined him again to provide family harmonies.

There were no officially released singles, but “April Fools,” “Foolish Love,” and “Beauty Mark” would have done the trick.

“In My Arms” the Marchand produced track, and the two others with Van Dyke Parks’ orchestrations deserve continued attention: “Millbrook” and “Baby.”

Aimee Mann / Regina Spekter / Teddy Thompson

This debut release won Wainwright four nominations for the Gay & Lesbian American Music Awards that year. The album was nominated for Album of the Year, while “April Fools” was nominated for Best Pop Recording and Video of the Year. He won the GLAAD award for Best New Artist, and at the GLAAD Media Awards he received an additional award for Outstanding Music Album.

25 years after his debut, Rufus Wainwright will release his 12th studio album, Folkocracy, next month featuring collaborations with artists like John Legend, Brandi Carlile, David Byrne, Susanna Hoffs, Sheryl Crow, female members of his family, and more.

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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