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Rufus Wainwright's Want One Is 'Family Affair'

Canadian singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright will release his third album, Want One (DreamWorks), on September 23. Wainwright, who's fostered his own style, fusing Tin Pan Alley influences with lushly orchestrated, baroque accents and pop sounds, continues to expand his musical repertoire on the 14-track album. According to press materials, Wainwright was so prolific, he's reaped another album of material, tentatively titled Want Two, which will be released early next year.

The set was produced by Marius deVries (Björk, Massive Attack, David Bowie); deVries also contributed to the orchestral arrangements. Wainwright enlisted an impressive slew of guest musicians, including Charlie Sexton and Gerry Leonard on guitar, guitarist/pianist Jimmy Zhivago, drummers Levon Helm, Matt Johnson and Sterling Campbell, and bassists Jeff Hill and Bernard O'Neill. Martha Wainwright (Rufus' singer sister) contributes backing vocals, as does Jenny Muldaur (Maria's daughter), Linda Thompson and Teddy Thompson (Linda's son). And Kate McGarrigle, Wainwright's mother, plays the banjo and accordion.

Want One is a "family affair" in more ways that that.

Several of the songs, including "Dinner at Eight," one of the most direct, emotionally sharp tunes of Wainwright's career, focuses on his relationship with his father, the folk singer Loudon Wainwright III, and feels haunting, with a melancholy melody and arrangement that includes strings and harp. "No matter how strong, I'm going to take you down with one little stone," Wainwright sings, over a simple piano-led accompaniment. As the song continues, growing in intensity and emotion, Wainwright goes on, "Why is it so that I've always been the one who must go/ That I've always been the one told to flee/ When in fact you were the one, long ago, actually, in the drifting white snow/ You left me." His admission is finessed with the supple string arrangement.

"Every time my mom hears it, she cries," Rufus Wainwright said in a press release, "because she can see that young child with his father leaving. It's so heartbreaking, and it happens so often." He continues, "I'm afraid of my father like all sons are. Our relationship is one of intense love, intense fear, intense respect and intense disrespect. A lot of the keys to my psyche and my well-being lie in that relationship. The issues that result from not having a father around, or the son rebelling against the father, are universal. Their impact is incalculable."

Wainwright has released two previous albums: Rufus Wainwright (1998) and Poses (2001), a lavish pop opus replete with lush, orchestrated string arrangements. Thematically, it charts the corruption of a naïve newcomer onto the New York social scene. Both albums received raves from the critics, and have allowed Wainwright to develop a healthy fan base.

The new album finds Wainwright once again evolving his sound. The title track is a misty number, led by hushed guitar and Wainwright's vocals. In it he sings of his dreams, his desire to disavow fame and settle into a simpler life. The cozy arrangement complements Wainwright's plea: "I just want to be my dad/ With a slight sprinkling of my mother/ And work at the family store and take orders from the counter."

Wainwright fans will also appreciate Want One's musical innovations. Wainwright does not forsake his theatrical side, and even continues his already impressive knack for orchestration with heady, stunning arrangements.

Lead track, "Oh What a World" opens with low, anchoring tuba, looping between Ravel's "Bolero" theme and a choir of harmonizing vocals. The song blossoms into its circular structure and Wainwright sings, "Wouldn't it be a lovely headline?/ 'Life is Beautiful' on the New York Times," unveiling a fully orchestrated arrangement that's as grandiose as the wondrous pronouncement.

Equally grandiose are "I Don't Know What It Is," which chugs along with its soaring melody and kicky chorus, and "14th Street," all glitter and pizzazz. The song, like Wainwright's persona, is over-the-top, splashy, and so much fun. "Go or Go Ahead" evokes Greek mythology, and its epic, almost prog-rock structure expands into a loping, captivating symphony.

Want One is not without its sense of humor. "Vibrate," a wistful commentary on contemporary culture, features a plucky string section. In the song, Wainwright muses about growing older and his distaste for some contemporary artistic movements. "My phone's on vibrate for you," he sings, ever so tenderly. He continues with his endearing rumination, deadpanning, "Electroclash is karaoke too/ I tried to dance (to) Britney Spears/ I guess I'm getting on in years."

Other tender moments include "Natasha," with its chiming keys. "Harvester of Hearts" favors a ragtime piano lead-in and gains color from its gauzy, breezy pace. The song is bathed in its sunny arrangement, slaloming along until its chorus, replete with the self-effacing Wainwright's cry: "Not that I have that much to offer/ God knows I have so much to gain."

Wainwright is expected to launch a tour following the album's release. For more information, consult his official Web site.

Want One's tracklisting: "Oh What a World," "I Don't Know What It Is," "Vicious World," "Movies of Myself," "Pretty Things," "Go or Go Ahead," "Vibrate," "14th Street," "Natasha," "Harvester of Hearts," "Beautiful Child," "Want," "11:11," and "Dinner at Eight." — Brian Orloff [Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2003]

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