Elton John, Jason Gould, Sam Smith, and much more.
By Gregg Shapiro
In January 2018, Elton John announced that he would be retiring from touring. His three-year farewell concert tour is sure to be one of the biggest musical events in contemporary pop-music history. The release of his double-disc hits-compilation Diamonds (Rocket/Island/UMe) preceded the announcement by a couple of months. At 34 tracks, Diamonds does a good job of representing the first 10 years of John’s career on the first disc. However, things go awry on the second disc, especially since this represents a much longer period—1980 to the present day, a time when the hits were somewhat less plentiful. Because it covers more than 36 years and over 15 studio albums, as well as significant movie soundtracks and original cast recordings, there are obvious exclusions. Nevertheless, as updated collections go, Diamonds sparkles. [Editor’s note: Elton John performs in Houston on December 8 and 9 at the Toyota Center.]
Arriving six years after his debut EP, Jason Gould’s first full-length album, Dangerous Man (Qwest), is a safe but solid disc. Gould, the gay son of Barbra Streisand and Elliott Gould, holds his own throughout the record, performing originals and cover tunes. A couple of the songs from the EP, “Morning Prayer” and “This Masquerade,” have made their way onto the full-length. His covers of “Bridge over Troubled Water,” “For All We Know,” and “The Way You Look Tonight” are all pleasing to the ear. “The Stranger,” co-written with Marilyn and Alan Bergman, the couple responsible for some of Streisand’s biggest hits, could be the sole nod to Gould’s mother. Also notable are collaborations with legendary lesbian songwriter Marsha Malamet, including “One Day” and “All’s Forgiven.”
Let’s face it: Sam Smith is the gay-male Adele. If anything, his new album The Thrill of It All (Capitol) only seals the deal. It’s an unavoidable comparison, especially when Smith opens the disc with a heart-tugging ballad such as “Too Good at Goodbyes.” The gospel-style choir is also a nice touch. The biggest difference between the new disc and Smith’s award-winning debut album, In the Lonely Hour, is the way that ballads dominate. There’s nothing here like “Money on My Mind,” “Like I Can,” “Restart,” or even “La La La.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as “Say It First,” “Him,” “Burning,” “Palace,” and the religious experience of “Pray” (cue gospel choir) demonstrate that Smith knows his strengths.
Awe-inspiring gay singer/songwriter Jim Andralis released his solo debut in 2016. Luckily for us, we didn’t have to wait long for the follow-up album. Available on CD and 180-gram gorgeous pink vinyl (with a download code included), Shut Up Shut Up (jimandralismusic.com) by Jim Andralis & The Syntonics exceeds all expectations. With stunning girl-group harmonies provided by The Syntonics (Julie Delano, Leslie Graves, Susan Hwang, and Jessie Kilguss), Andralis has a way of saying in song the things that many of us are thinking. This is best exemplified by “My Therapist Says,” “Don’t Blame New York,” “I’m a Monster,” “Don’t Trust Me,” the food-server anthem “Cover My Section,” and the title cut.
Half-Light (Nonesuch), Rostam Batmanglij’s second album since his departure from Vampire Weekend (following I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, his 2016 collaboration with Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen) is a radiant musical experience that is both varied and thrilling. Recording as Rostam, the gay musician has created an awe-inspiring quilt of musical styles and genres that fit together as if they were always meant to be in the same song or on the same album. “Bike Dream” is a sexy queer number that should be on everyone’s playlist. “Don’t Let It Get to You” marries African rhythms with glitzy tech to create an irresistible excuse for dancing. “Gwan” and the title cut are simply exquisite.
Patrick Boothe, a gay Austin-based singer/songwriter, returns with You Have to Believe We Are Tragic (patrickboothe.com). The title may sound like a parody of the Olivia Newton-John song “Magic,” but the material is serious. Boothe wanted the album “to reflect what it may be like for one to fall in love while working through depression and anxiety.” This definitely comes across on the songs “Matter,” “Untouchable,” “Living Man,” “Good People,” and “Do Better.”
In recent years, musical genres you might not think of as being particularly welcoming to out gay men—say country, metal, or jazz, for example—have begun to change in beneficial ways. Even the blues, perhaps the last vestige of the straight-male musician, has an openly gay artist in its ranks with harmonica player Jason Ricci. Over the course of 11 songs clocking in at 77 minutes, Approved by Snakes (Eller Soul) by Jason Ricci & The Bad Kind confirms that Ricci and his band are a blues force to be reckoned with.
Unlike the blues, dance music has long been the province of gay men, as both performers and fans. On Celebrate (Burning Tyger), Win Marcinak blends covers (Three Dog Night’s “Celebrate,” Sylvester’s “Disco Heat/Mighty Real,” Kajagoogoo’s “Too Shy,” and Aretha’s “Rock Steady”) with originals. Ulla Hedwig, one of Bette Midler’s original Harlettes, sings with Marcinak on “We Are What We Are.”
Finally, musical theater has played and continues to play an important role in the lives of gay men. Three recent cast recordings feature significant gay-male contributions. The late Howard Ashman was not only behind the Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors, but he also helped to revive Disney’s animated musical with blockbusters such as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. The first collaboration by Ashman and Alan Menken, Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (Ghostlight), has finally made its way to CD on the premiere cast recording featuring James Earl Jones, Skylar Astin, and Santino Fontana. Creative and personal partners Dan Martin and Michael Biello collaborated with Jennifer Robbins on Marry Harry: Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording (MarryHarry.com) about the intersection of love and food. Zombie Bathhouse features a book by Brian Kirst, with music and lyrics by Scott Free (whose fans may recognize some of the music from Free’s solo albums).
This article appears in the March 2018 edition of OutSmart Magazine.