Dig These Discs :: Wild Beasts, Lea Michele, Christina Perri, Rufus Wainwright, St. Vincent
"Glee" star Lea Michele continues to jockey for position as junior Barbra-in-training with her new release, "Louder." Gay singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright drops a huge package of his greatest hits. Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, is out on her own with a witchy new fourth release, as is English indie rock band Wild Beasts. And Philly singer/songwriter Christina Perri of "So You Think You Can Dance" fame releases her second album. There's lots to dig in this week's Dig These Discs.
"Vibrate" (Rufus Wainwright)
The gay prince of baroque pop cherry picks his 18 favorite songs from his seven studio albums and wraps them up for us this month. Although he doesn’t label it his ’greatest hits,’ it’s a perfect primer for anyone who’s unfamiliar with this rock royal, so of Louden Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, and sister to Martha Wainwright. He starts with the somber, "Going to a Town," with its melancholy piano chords about burned-out places and people and lyrics like, "I’m so tired of America." He follows with my personal favorite, "Out of the Game." Wainwright’s songs are like poems set to music, and this one is a prime example of his quirky sentiment, with the lyrics, "You’re only a young thing, ’bout to sleep with a sea of men/ Just hangin’ around, wearin’ something from God knows where, just havin’ a ball, making all of the thin cards fall." Some key tracks to watch for are his legendary cover of Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah," and his bonus track "Me and Liza," co-written by Guy Chambers. In the song he talks about them as "famous ’til the day that we die," and begs the star to give him a chance. Wainwright is known for the vocal range of his voice, his unusual arrangements and the wide array of instruments he uses in his compositions. The tuba bellows in "Oh What a World," and the piano is classical and gentle in "Poses" as he sings about how it, "makes any boy feel pretty as a princess." Wainwright is a master of seamlessly uniting the high and low-brow to make each more than the sum of its parts. In his title track, "Vibrate," a cello picks out refined chords as Wainwright sings, "My phones on vibrate for you, electrocrash is karaoke too, I try to dance Britney Spears, I guess I’m getting on in years." He charts youthful infatuation and influence in "The Art Teacher," and calls out for support in "Sometimes You Need." Wainwright is currently working on an unknown "Broadway musical project" and has started a piece based on the life of Emperor Hadrian. So be happy with this collection of songs, as well as the 16-track bonus of the songs (plus a few previously unreleased tracks) recorded live at Kenwood House in 2010, including "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart" and a short 2011 BBC interview with Jo Whiley. Among the best of that batch is his cover of Cohen’s song, "Chelsea Hotel No. 2," where he sings melodically, "I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel, you were talking so brave and so sweet/ giving me head on the unmade bed, while the limousines wait in the street." It also includes the big-band swinging new song, "Chic and Pointless," one to check out. The two-disc set is an embarrassment of riches.
"Louder" (Lea Michele)
"Glee" star and Barbra-in-training Lea Michele showcases her pop meets Broadway sound in her new album, "Louder." She jumps right into things with "Cannonball," singing about closing the door on fear and starting to live, flying like a cannonball. She goes for the harmonic stylings of a Taylor Swift in her track "On the Way," a fast-moving pop song with soppy lyrics like, "I know my heart’s too drunk to drive but I’m on my way to you tonight." The angst runs high in songs like "Cue the Rain," and her signature ballads like "Burn With You," a song about being "trapped inside this twisted circle," not wanting to go to heaven if her betrothed is headed for hell. Less successful is the saccharine piano ballad "Battlefield" about breaking up. She strikes a happy balance in "You’re Mine," a fast-moving love song with a ’90s feel and a revving backbeat of drums propelling it forward. The bathos is thick in "A Thousand Needles," but under it is that signature Barbra sound. Her title track "Louder" is likely to be the breakout hit of the collection, with a pounding club beat and lots of electronica. Michele is "flying high as a kite" in "Don’t Let Go" and lets her vocals run up and down the scale in the interesting cut "Empty Handed," singing, "If I finally let you in would you show me what love is, if I had nothing to give." Michele goes through "seven whole days without your embrace" in the too-rhymey "If You Say So." It’s hard to say who will enjoy this new release more: tweens, or ultra-gay Broadway divas. Like Michele herself, the album is earnest and reveals an indisputable talent, but remains on the short side of likeable.
(Sony Music Entertainment)
St. Vincent (St. Vincent)
Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, ditched The Polyphonic Spree to strike out on her own, and the multi-talented weirdo is making all the right waves. She’s hitting the charts this month with her fourth, self-titled release, and this poetic-minded songstress is finally starting to get the recognition she deserves. Her new album features complex arrangements on a wide number of instruments, highlighted by her uniquely bipolar brand of lyrics, one minute happy, one midnight mad. The resulting sound is somewhere between chamber rock and cabaret jazz. This Tulsa-born, Dallas-raised singer now resides in Manhattan; she took her stage name from the former St. Vincent’s Hospital, where Dylan Thomas died, drawing parallels to herself as "a place where poetry comes to die." She draws on a musical background that includes aunt and uncle, vocal jazz duo Tuck & Patti.
Her new makeover, a la The Addams Family, only serves to add to her sense of mystery. She won’t talk about her personal life, and hates getting her picture taken. In "Digital Witness" she looks at the consuming information age, singing, "I want all of your mind." In "Rattlesnake" she reportedly sings of walking through the desert naked before being ambushed by rattlers -- an analog delight, based on a true story. She swings in the reverb-heavy "Birth in Reverse," and a bad breakup is the stuff of the power-chord rocker "Regret." In late February, St. Vincent appeared on "The Colbert Report" to perform "Birth in Reverse" and "Digital Witness," a poppy Casio-keyboard up-note, herky-jerky tune that’s among the album’s best, with the refrain, "This is no time for confessing..." The coke-snorting stage door johnny is the type in "Prince Johnny," singing, "by now I know just when to steer clear, when all your fans and acolytes are holding court in bathroom stalls." She pays an homage to her mother with the ’80s-vibe, Madonnaesque track "I Prefer Your Love" singing, "I prefer your love to Jesus." Her a capella breaks in "Bring Me Your Loves" are unbalancing, and she keeps the beat with "Psychopath." "A smile is more than showing teeth," she sings in "Every Tear Disappears." St. Vincent finishes up with the bloody ballad, "Severed Crossed Fingers," a song that the performer told Pitchfork she, "sang that in one fucking take, cried my eyes out, and the song was done." The combination of her classical training and unorthodox arrangements make St. Vincent one worth watching.
"Present Tense" (Wild Beasts)
English indie rock band Wild Beasts drops their fourth studio album this month, and critics are already calling it the most streamlined to date. The outfit of singers Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming, Chris "Bert" Talbot on drums and Ben Little on guitar pushed out four albums in three years, but have finally taken the time to pare down all the unnecessary frills and get down to brass tacks. They sing about sex, death, violence and class, but this time, without all the Sturm und Drang. In their first single, "Wanderlust," they deal with the issue of class -- a viable cut for a group of kids from the country. Over deep bass and drums, they sing, "Don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck/ In your mother tongue, what’s the verb ’to suck’?" "Nature Boy" is a foreboding song that looks at a wild child who is having a tryst with a rich man’s wife. Band members told Pitchfork.com that the album contains reference to pro wrestlers like Ric Flair and Jake "The Snake" Roberts. They whisper through the alluring track "Mecca," singing, "just surrender your limbs to my every whim." Fleming’s voice is fine and high in "Sweet Spot," and the piano instrumentals in "Pregnant Pause" sweeten it as well. The keyboards are fabulous on "A Simple Beautiful Truth," and the hand drums rock in "A Dog’s Life." The glockenspiel is at work in "Past Perfect," and the dark song "Daughters," lurks into visions of children owing their parents a debt of revenge. They finish with "Palace," an upbeat pop song that is perhaps the band’s most risky move. In ending their album with a song so close to the mainstream appeal, are they skirting with their indie cred?
"Head or Heart" (Christina Perri)
Philly singer/songwriter Christina Perri first hit the spotlight as a contestant on "So You Think You Can Dance" in 2010. Her single, "Jar of Hearts" went on to sell more than 3 million copies, leading her to sign a contract with Atlantic Records. Now, she’s back with her second studio album, "Head or Heart," and its heart-pounding lead single, "Human" is already getting media attention, helped out a bit by a mind-blowing remix by Passion Pit. Her hit "A Thousand Years" was embraced by the tweens when it appeared in the "Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn," and her twee Christmas album, "A Very Merry Perri Christmas," released in October 2012, had respectable sales. But now she’s back with a collection of 13 tunes meant to cement her reputation as a serious performer. She launches with the "Trust," showing off her vocal range right off the bat. The bass is heavy in "Burning Gold," a song about a girl’s future slipping away, with lyrics, "Momma left and Daddy needs me here." Ed Sheeran lends his considerable skills to the upbeat, clap-track tune, "Be My Forever," harmonizing beautiful as they sing, "We’re on top of the world." She scores with the harmonic, longing "One Night," and looks at stolen love in "I Don’t Wanna Break," singing, "I fell for your fable, but I’m not Cinderella...if it gets harder, I don’t wanna break alone, I wanna break in your arms." Both songs could easily be found on the soundtrack of a popular TV show, which categorizes the bulk of Perri’s work. A piano intro elevates "Sea of Lovers" and "The Words." "Lonely Child" has the sound of an early Cher track like "Half Breed," and is more interesting for it. Perri’s voice is strong, but her songs seem to focus on women dealing with the scary currents of love, knowing that heartbreak is in the mix, but still willing to go along for the ride. In short, gay men will love it.