By Gregg Shapiro
Those who count themselves as Rufus Wainwright fans know that we were going to lose him to opera sooner or later. All of the signs were there, beginning with the song “Damned Ladies” on his brilliant 1997 eponymous debut album. Wainwright often discussed his love—or rather, obsession—with opera, so none of this should come as a surprise. In 2015, a double-disc recording of Wainwright’s 2009 opera Prima Donna was released, making it more or less official. Or did it? Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets (Deutsche Grammophon), Wainwright’s musical observance of the Bard’s 400th anniversary year, does something remarkable. It seamlessly combines Wainwright’s opera fixation with his pop passion, as he set selected sonnets to music. In addition to Wainwright himself, the album features a stellar array of guest vocalists, including opera diva Anna Prohaska, singing sister Martha Wainwright, Florence Welch (of Florence and the Machine), as well as spoken passages performed by Carrie Fisher, William Shatner, Helena Bonham Carter, Siân Phillips, and others. Perhaps most amazing is the song “Unperfect Actor (Sonnet 23),” in which Wainwright rocks harder on record than ever before.
Why be wrought when you can be overwrought? That’s a question that Michael Longoria might have asked himself as he set out to record Broadway Brick by Brick (Broadway Records). Just when it seemed the cabaret community had turned a corner by expanding its palette to include interpretations of more daring modern material, along comes this affected and clichéd offering from “Jersey Boy” Longoria. Seemingly unaware that love is a four-letter word, not a four-syllable word, Longoria—who, granted, has a pleasing voice—takes to the recording studio like it’s the mat at a gymnastics event. Even more disappointing is the uninventive choice of material, as if there wasn’t a decent song from a Broadway musical after Sunset Boulevard or Mamma Mia! from which to choose. Check again, mister! Longoria does deserve praise for singing some songs that were traditionally sung by women, including “Tell Me on a Sunday” (from Song and Dance), “As If We Never Said Goodbye” (from Sunset Boulevard), and “Music and the Mirror” (from A Chorus Line). Closing the disc with “Over the Rainbow” was a wise choice, as it gave Longoria the opportunity to clear out before someone dropped a house on him, too.
Fast Forward (E·A·R Music/Edel), queer singer/songwriter Joe Jackson’s first album of original material in seven years, is his best and most consistent disc of the 21st century. Jackson, who along with Elvis Costello and Graham Parker, arrived among the first wave of punk/new-wave artists, was a synth-pop pioneer (remember “Steppin’ Out”?), composed memorable movie scores (check out Mike’s Murder and Tucker), and dabbled in jazz and symphonic music over the course of his lengthy career. Separated into four sections based on where the songs were recorded—New York, Amsterdam, Berlin, and New Orleans—the 16 selections are fine examples of Jackson’s versatility. His covers of songs by Television (“See No Evil”) and German cabaret composer Peter Kreuder (“Good Bye Johnny”) co-exist comfortably alongside top-notch originals, including the title tune, “Ode to Joy,” “Poor Thing,” “If It Wasn’t for You,” “A Little Smile,” “The Blue Time,” and “Keep on Dreaming.”
It’s incredible and exciting to think this, but each new Tegan and Sara album has become its own sort of event. Since the release of the queer-twin duo’s major-label debut in 2000, their popularity has continued to mount as they evolve their definitive folk-pop style into the current electro-powered sound. Love You to Death (Rhino/WB), propelled by the insanely irresistible first single “Boyfriend,” spins around like ’80s nostalgia filtered through the 20-teens. There’s so much to love to death here, including the desirable “Stop Desire,” the dramatic “White Knuckles,” the dazzling piano and vocal break-up ballad “100X” and its flipside “B/W/U,” the retro strut of “U-Turn,” and the swirly dream of “Hang On to the Night.”
Is there anything Margaret Cho can’t do? She’s a comedian, a writer, an actress, a burlesque artist, an activist, and a fashionista. In 2010 she expanded her reach with her music album Cho Dependent and has just released its highly anticipated follow-up American Myth (margaretcho.com). On the whole, the album, a collaboration with lesbian singer/songwriter Garrison Starr, feels like a more serious effort, beginning with the way that Cho has become a better singer. Opener “Come with Me,” as well as “Moran & Miiri,” “Anna Nicole,” and “Daddy, I Miss You,” also reflect a more fundamental change in her approach to making music. Don’t misunderstand—Cho still knows how to make us laugh, as she does on “Ron’s Got a DUI” (which also has a sober side to it), “Fat Pussy,” and “We So Worry.” Brava, diva!
Heather Mae is not the first queer woman of size to address issues of body image. Beth Ditto and Mary Lambert get some of the credit for paving the way. Nevertheless, Heather Mae’s self-empowering five-song EP I Am Enough (heathermae.net) is also deserving of attention. To her credit, she’s got talent to burn, both as a singer and a songwriter. “Broken” but with her “feet still on the ground,” as she sings in “Hero,” she vows to get crowned and be the hero in her own story. The brilliant title tune, with its “turn around” advice to detractors, as well as the anthemic “Stand Up,” on which she’s accompanied by a “bad-ass chorus,” are also noteworthy. This is the kind of EP that will surely leave listeners longing for more from the singer.
Filmed in October 2015 at Como, Italy’s Teatro Sociale, Sinfonia Pop (Eagle Vision), the live concert video by Mika, features a broad selection of songs from all four of the queer singer/songwriter’s major-label recordings, including his latest, 2015’s No Place in Heaven, as well as a couple of non-LP singles. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of attending a Mika concert, you know he’s a first-rate showman. Even in such a sophisticated setting, backed up by a full orchestra, the buoyant energy of Mika’s music comes through. DVD bonus features include interviews with Mika and conductor Simon Leclerc.