Rufus Wainwright

(formerly posted on the Yahoo! Music site)

The record racks are crammed with second-generation performers nowadays, but Rufus Wainwright is the only one with the talent to match his breeding. The son of folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, Rufus has already distinguished himself as a major auteur after just one album, invoking breathless comparisons to hallowed names like Brian Wilson, Randy Newman and even Cole Porter.

A bit of a prodigy, Rufus was already touring with his mother when barely in his teens, and by the age of 14 had earned a Genie nomination for Best Song in a Film. After spending the next several years on the coffeehouse circuit in Montreal, he was signed to DreamWorks by Lenny Waronker (appropriately, the former producer of both Newman and Wilson).

Wainwright's stunning debut album has little to do with his parents' gentle whimsy, instead showcasing romantic piano ballads garnished with strings, horns, vintage keyboards and oddball percussion. While his lyrics thoughtfully touch on family, music, personal travels and (especially) doomed love, his melodic gifts are what truly set him apart. Like Wilson, Burt Bacharach and a select few others, Wainwright has that rare knack for writing a tune which is daringly complex on paper, yet pure bubblegum to the ear. Swoons like "Danny Boy," "April Fools" and "Matinee Idol" are sheer magic, while quieter moments like "Foolish Love," "Damned Ladies" and "Millbrook" tap into the same sense of sepia-toned Americana which Van Dyke Parks (who arranged and conducted strings for three tracks) has always mined so well. Meanwhile, producer Jon Brion's sparkling work with textural detail lends the songs a vivid three-dimensional atmosphere. It's a dazzling entrance for a young artist.

Whether Wainwright can maintain this lofty standard remains to be seen. However, given that the songs on his debut were chosen from a staggering 56 demos, this prolific writer's future seems assured.

1. Rufus Wainwright 1998
Wainwright's first album is a rapturous blend of near-operatic vocals, romantic sentiment and lavishly sophisticated melodies. He goes way out on a limb here, holding absolutely nothing back, and the risk pays off -- this is one of the year's very best releases.
Rating: 6

--Eric Broome