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Rufus Wainwright's Rufus Wainwright

It seems too easy a target. Rufus Wainwright, son of renowned folkies Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, decides to record his own album. The list of famous musicians' progeny who mistakenly thought they would inherit their parents' songwriting ability along with their genes is too long to recite here, but the names Julian Lennon, Hank Williams, Jr., and Jakob Dylan ought to be enough to strike fear into people's hearts. Wainwright, however, has avoided the curse that infected those who came before him by creating his own musical niche instead of rehashing the music his parents made. His self-titled debut is far more informed by Broadway and cabaret than folk music, and though his musical tastes lean toward the overblown, they never become overbearing.

The presence of both Brian Wilson associate Van Dyke Parks and Jon Brion, who assisted Fiona Apple on her brilliant debut, certainly doesn't hurt Wainwright. But he is far from being a puppet of the musicians he so clearly admires. Instead, he flexes his own muscles in every song. The tracks reward a closer listen: lyrically, Wainwright attempts to emulate the timeless Broadway standards of the past, but his wicked sense of humor always gets the best of him and stamps the songs with a uniquely modern sensibility. "April Fools" provides a perfect example of how Wainwright twists Broadway tradition to fit his nefarious lyrical schemes. The chorus to the song croons, "And you will believe in love/ and all that it's supposed to be/ but just until the fish start to smell/ and you're struck down by a hammer."

The most astonishing thing about Rufus Wainwright is the musical backdrop. Wainwright writes songs that surprise, songs that stop and start in unfamiliar places and combine traditional instruments like piano and guitar with subtle, quasi-electronic elements. The result is that every note falls in the right place, waiting for the right moment to spring out of the darkness and absolutely dazzle.

Wainwright's words are well-suited to the music, revealing his inner conflict between innocence and optimism on one side and wisdom and world-weariness on the other. In writing about missing lovers, dead friends, and the lost days of a glorious past, he strives for the correct tone of longing, but his voice gives him away as an optimist at heart. It soars at emotional moments and creates little frills around the choruses of every song. His voice reveals him as a believer in love, even when the stench of dead fish makes the air too heavy to breathe.

This is not to say that Wainwright is a charlatan, playing a part he hasn't put his heart into. He differs from most other talented modern songwriters by being better at a clever turn of phrase and a tricky internal rhyme than at heavily confessional lyrics. His words have a universality, and his optimism drips from everything he sings. Wainwright is a songwriter to be reckoned with, a throwback to the days of George Gershwin and Cole Porter for his tunefulness and wit. One day he will likely record a formidable collection of songs of experience to accompany these songs of innocence. (DreamWorks)

--Saul Austerlitz

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