While it took him 25 years, after making sophisticated pop albums both of the classic past and more modern pop as well as exploring the world of opera and classical music, Rufus Wainwright, the child of two well-known folk artists and what he describes as “a bona fide folkocracy,” has finally gotten around to making his own bona fide folk album, his charmingly titled, 11th album, Folkocracy. Famously the son of singer-songwriters Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarricle, who was in the popular Canadian folk duo with her sister Anna McGarricle. In his album bio, Wainwright reflects on growing up attending folk festivals and watching his famous family members perform alongside members of other folk family dynasties, The Seegers and The Thompsons. Turns out Teddy Thompson, an occasional collaborator of his, who is also the son of famous musicians Richard and Linda Thompson, had gathered his own ‘folkocracy’ together for the 2014 album, “Family,” but Wainwright has imagined a larger collection of collaborators, including John Legend, Chaka Khan, Sheryl Crow, and David Byrne as well as his singing sisters Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche.
Two of the folkiest of the 15 tracks here, are indeed genuine American folk classics, the omnipresent lullaby, “Hush Little Baby,” sung in familial harmony with his two sisters, Martha and Lucy, “papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.” But the album closes with “Wild Mountain Thyme,” sung again with his sisters and ups the ante with his late mother’s sister, Anna McGarricle playing on accordion and singing their singing partner Chaim Tannenbaum singing and playing banjo. It’s a lush, historic collaboration that points back to that larger family legacy and true “folkocracy” to which the nearly 50-year-old Wainwright has now chosen to celebrate.
But Wainwright’s not just tripping down memory lane, he resurrects a Southern folk traditional, “Cotton Eyed Joy,” delivered as a classic soul ballad with none other than Chaka Khan; and he gives an orchestrated duet delivery of “Heading for Home,” the original song by Peggy Seeger (Pete’s sister), trading vocal lines with John Legend while a banjo mixes with the orchestra. The album opens with “Alone,” an older Scottish folk song, written by Ewan McColl, who had been married to Peggy Seeger later in his life, Wainwright singing with female Americana vocalist and guitarist Madison Cunningham, who plays guitar on a handful of the other tracks as well. It’s worth taking note of Mitchell Froom’s production, who often leans toward a less is more approach that tends to serve these songs and Wainwright’s intent to a T. Froom has been closely associated with Crowded House of late, but he’s produced great albums for the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos, Richard Thompson, Peter Case, and Maria McKee.
Two of the darker folk traditions get served up nicely. The murder ballad “Down in the Willow Garden,” is sung as sweetly as can be with Brandi Carlile, obscuring the dark narrative. While “High on a Rocky Ledge” is an original song by a blind New York City street-musician who was the “Viking of Sixth Avenue,” called Moondog, whose real name was Louis Hardin. Wainwright and veteran New Yorker David Byrne, sung like an English sonnet, “to my lady fair,” in a suicide pact, of course.
There are a couple of smart nods to the folk pop & rock movements of the late 60’s and early 70’s, worthy of note. Neil Young’s lovely “Harvest” gets CSN styled 3-part harmonies, Wainwright singing with Andrew Bird, who also plays some fine violin, and Chris Stills, none other than the son of Stephen. I know here in the post-modern world there’s little appreciation for irony, but as the song comes to its final lines, you have to think that Rufus is enjoying singing Neil’s line about “the promise of a man,” completely straight. Well, in his own way. Another nod goes to The Mama’s & The Papa’s on John Phillips’ “Twelve-Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon), getting the desired four-part harmonies again with Stills, but standing in for the Mama’s are Susanna Hoffs and Sheryl Crow, again to just lovely results.
And then as a reminder that he also has written songs that serve the tradition as well, Wainwright offers up one of his own compositions, “Going to a Town,” a sad song about the failure of the American dream, song again with a thoughtful duet partner, Anohni, the English-born trans singer. Going to the farthest reaches of America, Wainwright serves up the native folk of the Hawaiian Islands, where he now makes his home, acknowledging getting schooled in the native language to sing properly “Kaulana Na Pua,” where he’s joined by another native, Nicole Scherzinger who is also the lead singer with the Pussycat Dolls.
The remaining tracks find Wainwright serving up classics like “Shenandoah” and “Arthur McBride,” and then somehow manages to hum his way through Schubert’s “Nacht und Traume,” while “Black Gold” gets the full Van Dyke Parks treatment, with orchestration arranged as if it’s a tango set in the Old West, or actually at sea. There’s no doubt that Rufus Wainwright is an artist who committed to follow his own drummer, and he’s a fine, fine singer. Here he does more than pay his dues to the genetic and cultural world that set him on the path of musical artistry, he develops and expands the traditional roots music formula, proving that it not only has lasting value as a romantic reminder of what once was, but has found ways to reshape and reinvent ways that the folk music tradition remains as vital and relevant as the nightly news. Who could ask for more from a living legacy and a self-declared Folkocracy.
“Harvest” / “Heading For Home” / “Hush Little Baby”
ARTISTS WITH SIMILAR FIRE
Teddy Thompson / Jakob Dylan / Chris Stills
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