My dad was a firefighter. He worked for the city of Detroit for 20 years, through the riots of ’67 and the yearly Devil’s Night infernos. It would have been easy for me to follow him into the flames: Dad is well-connected to fire science programs and often teaches at the National Fire Academy. But firefighting is too hazardous for the pay; once a roof collapsed on my father’s back. So I became a part-time writer/part-time graphic artist. Other than the occasional severe edit or X-Acto knife mishap, there is no danger in my careers. And no pressure to measure up to Dad’s many fire service awards, either. For singer-songwriters Rufus Wainwright and Sean Lennon the choice wasn’t so clear; both have gene pools that they’d be silly not to exploit.
“Have you ever wanted any other career?”
“No, I never wanted to be a fireman, it looked too dangerous.”
Loudon Wainwright to Austin CitySearch.com
As the son of two folkies, the wry Loudon Wainwright and the wispy Kate McGarrigle, Rufus grew up performing, traveling with his mother and aunt’s group, the McGarrigle Sisters and Family. The younger Wainwright’s self-titled debut CD is decorated with cut-and-paste collages of psychedelic scribbles and family pictures, virtually inviting critics to connect him with his past.
Wainwright’s voice is a commanding nasal drone that doesn’t sound nearly as bad as that description. It takes several listens to get used to Wainwright’s vocal tics because his lines tend to blur together in a mix of unique phrasings and slurred pronunciations. I kept thinking the line from his “Danny Boy” “You broke my heart Danny Boy” was “You broke my ark, damn thee bark” before I looked at the lyrics. (And no, it’s not that “Danny Boy.”) But over time, it’s Wainwright’s voice that makes him distinct.
Like many singer-songwriters, Wainwright takes many of his musical cues from ’60s and ’70s artists. The CD’s upbeat first single, “April Fools,” is a grand pop number, sounding like the Beatles, Wings, ELO, and the Beach Boys, but it’s pulled away from its influences by Wainwright’s singular voice. And behind its buoyant melodies is a drowning chorus: “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.” Wainwright’s Beach Boys influence is reinforced by the contributions of Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks, whose darkly lush arrangements color “Baby,” “Foolish Love,” and “Millbrook,” while the brief “Beauty Mark” capitalizes on Wilson’s love of heavily decorating light pop tunes with timpani drums and bells.
The Leonard Cohen-like “In My Arms” features Wainwright’s sister, Martha, on background vocals, with Wainwright teasing, “I ain’t a soft and saccharine wannabe/Still I pray to God/This song will end happily.” And Tom Waits’ influence, minus the dying-cow vocals, hovers over the Spanish cabaret number “Matinee Idol.” But Wainwright isn’t a slave to his rock record collection. “Foolish Love” could be from vaudeville, with its sweeping strings, stomping piano, and corny clever lyrics (“I will take my coffee black, never snack/Hang with the wolves who are sheepish”). He just as easily cribs from the romanticism of Irving Berlin and renders it into artsy folk rock for the ’90s.
Even though “Barcelona” is the CD’s eighth track, it centers the record. It’s a gorgeous, nearly seven-minute cut with Wainwright accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, supported by Jon Brion’s sublime accents on tuned toms and percussion. It’s also Wainwright’s most controlled vocal. When he softly sings “The summer sun set a vicious circus/When shadows held the world in place/But today I felt a chill in my apartment’s coolest place,” he quietly invades the heart.
“I definitely wanted to make sure that record sounded more like a demo than a finished, polished product.”Sean Lennon to the Toronto Sun.
Whereas Wainwright has the luck of having talented parents who are cult faves at best, Sean Lennon’s dad helped create a worldwide cultural and social revolution. Firefighting suddenly looks appealing. Which is probably why John’s son produced such a modest debut album with Into the Sun; by lowering his own expectations, perhaps he hopes the world’s will follow.
Into the Sun is an earnest ode to the 22-year-old Lennon’s lover, muse, and producer Yuka Honda, one half of the kitsch pop duo Cibo Matto. (There have already been rumblings that the 30-something Honda is Sean’s Yoko, which are inane at best.) Nearly every song is a gooey coo to his live-in love, with Lennon sounding like a happy bird singing away on a branch.
In addition to looking like papa John, Sean’s half-brother, Julian, made the mistake of sounding like his dad. Sean doesn’t sound anything like his father. John had a sweet, reedy voice; Sean’s trebly vox sounds like an extended door squeak. (Howard Stern has been merciless about Lennon’s thin, tiny croon.) But Sean does share his father’s interest in creating visual art. His amateurish sketches decorate the CD booklet; like John, compared with his paintings, as a painter Sean makes a great musician. But even the crude sketches play into Lennon’s desire to define Into the Sun as an unpolished debut.
Like his label bosses, the Beastie Boys (whose Grand Royal imprint released the CD) Lennon is a pastiche artist, mixing and matching various pop styles throughout Into the Sun. But where the Beasties at once pay homage to and subvert notions of rock, rap, and funk, Lennon is content to play within a genre’s boundaries. Into the Sun features a mix of light pop and funk, bossa nova beats, and synth-pop silliness, with the occasional blast of alternative rock.
“Mystery Juice” begins the album as an easy-going power ballad, with Lennon playing through methodic chord changes with occasional shifts in color, before he stomps on the distortion and then mellows out with a spacey ending. It sounds thrown together, as if Lennon just cribbed the best bits of three half-baked songs and slapped on a title. The lyrics, too, have a tossed-salad feel. Even though he comically croons of ennui with “Every day I watch the TV shows/It’s getting so I know the shows hosts,” Lennon also sings “Baby I’m a lonely kind of man/Like a rapper with a forty in his hand” without the slightest irony.
Lennon’s eclecticism is toned down into a single-genre exploration on “Into the Sun,” a textbook bossa nova, with Lennon nasaling out, “And like birds we’ll fly/Up into the sky/Our love will survive” in duet with Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori. Bossa nova is warm and sexy in the hands of Lennon’s admitted hero, Antonio Carlos Jobim, but Lennon’s take on the genre sounds with typical hipster vampirism, sucking the blood right out of the music. That’s not to say “Into the Sun” is badjust bloodless. Which is a problem with most of Lennon’s genre hopping: “Part One of the Cowboy Trilogy” is underbred country, featuring Lennon boinging away on a jew’s-harp and wheezing his way through a harmonica, while “Photosynthesis” takes a stab at jazz, calling on the first-class trumpeter Dave Douglas and giving him nothing to do. It’s not really jazz, just kinda jazzy.
Even though genre skimming is now the norm, Lennon is at his best where he’s just a simple alt rocker, whatever that means. The first single, “Home,” is a song rich with Beach Boys-like harmonies soaring over an easygoing, fuzz pop melody. You can hear Lennon smacking his lips on “Bathtub,” a song that mixes programmed rhythms and buzzy acoustic strumming, as he coos, “The towel is on the floor/But is it worth fighting for?” while, one guesses, clutching his rubber ducky. The bouncy, Sgt. Peppery “Queue”the album’s only vaguely Beatlesque tunefeatures jazz organist John Medeski and the simple but reassuring lines “Get in line/’Cause you’re not the only one/So keep on waiting for your time to come.” The same idea is reinforced in “Sean’s Theme,” a sort of closing-time, lounge-bar ballad with the lines “I waited and waited for something to catch/I waited and waited for my eggs to hatch.” Both songs are messages to himself as much to his fans. (“Sean’s Theme” also features the album’s only reference to Lennon’s father. The song eerily ends with a voice that sounds like John’s saying, “Goodnight, son.”)
Will Lennon ever escape expectations based on his father? No. While Into the Sun isn’t a great album, it’s winsome and earnest and acts like a wedge between his music and his father’s legacy, pushing apart their presumed similarities. Sean is not a notable talent yet, and he may never be, but he is on the right route to making comparisons to his dad specious.CP
Sean Lennon and Rufus Wainwright play Saturday, July 11, at the 9:30 Club.