New Music Gets 2008 in tune.
by Gregg Shapiro
In her early years, before she was a full-time Blue Note artist, the jazz goddess Patricia Barber released some well-respected albums on the independent Premonition Records label. These albums were notable for the way Barber transformed familiar pop tunes, including “Ode to Billy Joe,” “The Fool on the Hill,” and even “You Are My Sunshine,” into sultry sensations that practically emitted steam. When it came to Barber’s unsurpassed taste in cover tunes, the out diva left the genders intact on songs such as “She’s a Lady,” “Light My Fire,” and “Black Magic Woman,” adding to her mystique as a performer. The handsomely packaged triple-disc box set The Premonition Years: 1994–2002 (Premonition) revisits the albums from that period, on discs labeled “Pop Songs” (featuring the aforementioned titles), “Standards” (with tracks ranging from “So in Love” to “Alfie” to “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”), and finally, “Originals” (a dozen Barber compositions including “Touch of Trash,” “I Could Eat Your Words,” and “If This Isn’t Jazz”), providing another way of listening to this important artist.
As interpreters of standards go, Rufus Wainwright is in a class by himself. Just to prove it, he performs a loving tribute to a legendary 1961 Judy Garland concert on the double-disc Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall (Geffen). Recorded on June 14 and 15, 2006, Wainwright dives headfirst into the music, peppering it here and there with his own personal touches and comments, but remains faithful enough to the original source material that he even reproduces Garland’s stumbles, most notoriously on “You Go to My Head,” during which the frail diva lost her place in the song, and improvised the lyric, “You go to my head/and I forgot the God darn words…” Wainwright, who has long had a reputation of having first-rate guest artists with him in concert and on his recordings, doesn’t disappoint here. He is joined by sister Martha Wainwright on “Stormy Weather,” mother Kate McGarrigle (to whom he dedicates “How Long Has This Been Going On”) on “Over the Rainbow” (be sure to read what she wrote in the liner notes), and Lorna Luft, Garland’s daughter, on “After You’ve Gone.”
Fans of Rufus Wainwright, Antony and the Johnsons, and the Dresden Dolls, will find much to admire on Safe Inside the Day (Drag City) by Baby Dee. Alternately lush and stripped-down orchestrations on these chamber cabaret tunes by transgender musician Baby Dee conjure a vague sense of nostalgia while never losing grasp of their contemporary nature. “A Compass of the Light” and “Teeth Are the Only Bones That Show” are good examples. Having guest musicians such as Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Andrew WK (yes, you read that right) performing on the disc ups the ante on Baby Dee’s indie cred and hipness quotient.
With enough brass and vibes to make a young Herb Alpert salivate, queer duo Koop kicks off their latest album, Koop Islands (Atlantic), with the seductive “Koop Island Blues,” featuring Ane Brun on lead vocals. Followed, as it is, by the evocative “Come to Me,” it shouldn’t take a listener long to realize that he only needs to pack flip-flops, shorts, and a loose-fitting T-shirt for this island-hopping disc, because he is going to be doing some dancing. The Gene-Krupa-meets-Benny-Goodman “Forces…Darling” swings, man, while “I See a Different You” and “Let’s Elope” add a Latin kick. Clearly, retro revivalists Amy Winehouse, Nicole Atkins, and Richard Hawley need to make space on their islands for Sweden’s Koop.
From Iceland, ambient and atmospheric specialists Sigur Rós, led by out front man Jonsi (Birgisson) return with Hvarf/Heim (XL), a joining of two EPs. In addition to glorious live acoustic versions of “Samskeyti,” from the 2002 disc ( ) , and “Agætis Byrjum,” from the 1999 disc of the same name, the album also consists of harder-edged newly recorded versions of the songs “Salka,” the U2-esque “Hljómalind” and “I Gær,” which, if nothing else, demonstrates the group’s versatility.
Thanks to the alternative-radio hit single “Not an Addict” and the raw intensity of her vocals, Sarah Bettens, the queer half of the sibling duo K’s Choice, will be familiar to some. Bettens went solo with her 2005 disc Scream, and she now follows it up with the wonderful Shine (Cocoon). If it never occurred to you before how similar the quality of her voice is to Indigo Girl Amy Ray’s, then just listen to her faithful cover of Ray’s “Put It Out for Good.” A powerful plea for gun control, “Daddy’s Gun,” is followed by “Just Another Day” and “Feel Me Break,” which examine different aspects of love. Other radiant tracks include “Rescue Me,” “Pave the Way,” “It’s Alright,” and “The Soldier Song.”
Ana Egge, who made her acclaimed first recording, River Under the Road, in Austin and frequently returns to the Texas capital to perform, has been making a name for herself writing and recording her own songs, occasionally tossing in a few cover tunes. On her new disc, Lazy Days (Grace/Parkinsong), Egge turns her complete attention to the music of others. If the sheer variety of the material, with its “wasting time” theme, wasn’t enough to compel you pick up this album, then Egge’s graceful interpretations warrant recommendation—from Egge’s takes on Gene Autry (“It’s My Lazy Day”) to the Arcade Fire (“In the Backseat”) and from Le Tigre (“Much Finer”) to Belle & Sebastian (“Summer Wastin’”). You would be wise to make Lazy Days your favorite waste of time.
Of course, the fact that you’re gay doesn’t mean that you’re going to be good at interior design or doing hair, right? It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a snappy dresser, that you have a gym-toned body, or that you like show tunes or Madonna, either. Being gay is no guarantee that becoming a dance music superstar is in your destiny.
Someone probably should have mentioned that fact to Noa Tylo. If you threw Tylo’s boy-band brand of (sub)urban dance pop against a wall, it wouldn’t stick. His disc Let’s Do It (noatylo.com) is virtually all style and no substance. “Take To” comes closest to being both memorable and movement-inducing, sounding as if the South African Tylo actually figured how to—borrowing from the album’s title—do it. As for the remixes (one of “Here We Go” and an astounding eight of the title track), it’s Solar City’s “Club Anthem” mix that does anything worth noting to the original version.
Matthew Duffy narrowly avoids the same trap as Tylo on his second full-length disc, The Healing Machine (matthewduffy.com). There’s a bit more depth, and even some introspection, here, as on the Nine Inch Nails-lite tune “Rope’s End.” It’s a message song with a beat good enough to dance to. Perhaps the most daring track is Duffy’s cover of the Cat Stevens chestnut “The Wind,” an interesting choice rendered in a respectful manner. Ultimately, Duffy—who recently hosted the music program NewNowNext on the Logo network—wants you to dance, and “Ride It” and the disc’s best tracks, “Closer” and “Rain Comes/Love Disappears,” provide the action.
Queer electro diva Nicky Click is back, and she packs a pocketful of bubbling and bumping beats on I’m on My Cell Phone (Crunks Not Dead/Foxie). Take your pick from the lo-fi synth beats of the suggestive “Utter Despair and Chocolate Eclairs,” the hyper-hop of “Crazy Shit,” the smutty “Ice Cream Girl” (featuring Johnny Dangerous & Cathy Catholic), the disco throwback “Get on the Floor and Dance,” the Katastrophe collaboration “It’s Complicated,” and the rhythm method of “F–k Machine.”
David Vector’s dance music intentions on “Go” (davidvector.com) are also honorable. A majority of the dozen songs on the disc have a definite dance-floor bent, with an undeniable rock edge. Standouts include “Get Real,” “Steamville,” “Skin,” and “Snake Eyes.”
Gregg Shapiro is a past recipient of the annual OutMusic award that recognizes contributions by non-musicians in furthering the work of GLBT performers.