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CD reviews


VOXTROTVoxtrotMAy 22

The trend for Rufus Wainwright lately has been steady inflation: bigger themes, larger canvases, a ballooning conviction in his own voice and songs. His fifth album, Release the Stars, opens with a pregnant question — "Do I disappoint you in just being human?" — and builds to operatic dimensions, replete with religious and apocalyptic language.

Elsewhere on the album, Wainwright is the one who sounds disappointed: in the hypocrisy of his country ("I'm so tired of America"), the dullness of sobriety ("I'm tired of writing elegies to boredom"), the actions or intentions of various lovers and friends. The album bears a dedication to his mother, the Canadian singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle; his father, Loudon Wainwright III, seems to make his usual shadowy appearances in the lyrics. (Could he be the "innocent culprit" in one song?)

Wainwright has the uncanny ability to write songs that feel simultaneously forthright and evasive, urgent as well as coy. On Release the Stars, on which Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys was executive producer, those contradictory impulses cohabit a realm of ornate orchestral pop. Wainwright's reedy yet assertive voice rings through these dense arrangements, often matching the bombast with his own brand of brazenness.

Who else but Wainwright could come up with a peppy lament for a former paramour with the title Between My Legs? Who else would have the British actress Sian Phillips rasp a villainous recitation on that track, over a chromatic horn part lifted from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera theme? And who else would memorialize a brief meeting with a fellow singer (Brandon Flowers, the lead singer of the Killers) by composing a waltz with lines like "Your face has the Marlon Brando Club calling"?

If the answers are obvious, the music somehow isn't. Remarkably, Wainwright infuses Release the Stars with enough honest emotion to overcome the grandiosity, or at least undercut it a bit. His next move will be bigger still: He is working on a Metropolitan Opera commission with the suggestive title Prima Donna. He seems ready for this task; he's already inclined to view human failing as potentially epic.

In retrospect, it's clear that the stratospheric success of Linkin Park marked the end of an era. Two eras, actually. With the rise of Linkin Park, the great (or not-so-great) rap-rock Linkin Park had one last hurrah. And with the release of group's 2000 debut album, Hybrid Theory, which sold more than 9 million copies in the US, the great CD sales boom of the 1990s had one of its last hurrahs, too.

Seven years later (and four years after the successful sequel, Meteora), CD sales are in the toilet and rap-rock has been flushed, so the members of Linkin Park are trying to evolve and survive with Minutes to Midnight. In deference to the current climate, they have de-emphasized rap-rock and tentatively embraced emo. What I've Done, the first single (already a rock-radio staple), begins with Chester Bennington, the lead singer, delivering the kind of vague but overwritten lyrics that emo bands are known for: "In this farewell, there's no blood, there's no alibi/'Cause I've drawn regret from the truth of a thousand lies." If you're waiting for the rapping to start, you'll wait in vain.

Maybe Rick Rubin, who helped produce, got the musicians to loosen up, but loose is relative with a band this fastidious. Instead of writing songs during jam sessions, the members typically share ideas by swapping hard drives. Even on this album, just about everything is tweaked to perfection, and there's always an infectious refrain around the corner (provided you can survive the often banal verses).

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