Rufus Wainwright – Take All My Loves – 9 Shakespeare Sonnets - A review

It’s not unusual for pop or rock stars to branch out into the world of classical music. Off the top of my head, Paul McCartney’s done it and Elvis Costello’s done it, and even a briefest of Google searches reveal many more (Roger Waters, Glen Danzig included). They probably don’t do it to appeal to existing fans though there will always be a number that take an interest. As a Costello fan I enjoyed ‘The Juliet Letters’ with the Brodsky Quartet and ‘For The Stars’, a collaboration with Anne Sofie von Otter but failed to investigate ‘Il Sogno’ from 2002 on Deutsche Grammophon. And so it is I approach Rufus Wainwright and his collaborative DG release of 9 of William Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Music mixes with spoken word here, and guests are aplenty, William Shatner, Helena Bonham Carter, Carrie Fisher, Florence Welch, Martha Wainwright and Anna Prohaska included. I’d be more looking forward to this if it was mainly Rufus and his own vocal interpretations, and if the subject was something other than the bard, I’m not at all a Shakespeare fan, a take on the great poets for instance would be more enticing for me. But still, open mind and all that and being a fan of Rufus since his very first album, I’m a gonna give it a go.


So, the spoken word bits are hard going for me. Fairly straight recital, sometimes over minimalist music backing, they just don’t stoke my fires. Carrie Fisher and William Shatner carry a little more interest than the others simply because I know them from films and TV that I have watched though this is not enough to really capture my attention as mind reaches for the Shakespeare off switch.

The music though is quality throughout and the songs mask the Shakespearean language a bit too. Everything is beautifully recorded and performed, and there is enough to link this to Rufus own work in rock and pop. His own first vocal contribution comes on track three, ‘Take All My Loves (Sonnet 40)’, and has a stirring almost Scott Walker-ish quasi experimental rock-classical approach to it.  As a rock and Rufus fan it’s great, it’d make a Rufus compilation even. Not sure what Shakespeare scholars would make of it. I’d expect reactions to run the range from sacrilege to inspired. The albums joint production with Marius De Vries also links the work to Rufus’ past, and gives things a solid grounding. ‘A Woman’s Face (Sonnet 20)’ the second track to feature the works other main vocal contributor Anna Prohaska is more appealing than the earlier take on Sonnet 43, it’s short and sombre and segues into ‘For Shame (Sonnet 10)’, a slightly more fairground ride of a production and less convincing for being so.


‘Unperfect Actor (Sonnet 23)’ features Rufus’s sister Martha and fellow classical and pop crossover performer, the classically trained Fiora Cutler. There a dramatic recitation as intro from Helena Bonham Carter but for me things really get going when the song, a pounding, heavy, rock based piece really kicks in. As a classical music ignoramus I’d like to think this is all a bit much for some of the Deutsche Grammophon bigwigs, but this album is delivering far more range and diversity than I was expecting. This track puts me in mind of Marc Almonds collaboration with John Harle on ‘The Tyburn Tree’, there are truly two worlds clashing here, and the effect is quite thrilling and in places very impressive.

I’m not a fan of Florence (and the Machine) Welch but her track ‘When In Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes (Sonnet 29)’ is an enthralling 3-minute diversion with 60’s pop and folk throwback beauty. It’s followed by what is essentially Captain Kirk reciting Shakespeare. If you’ve ever heard Mr Shatner ‘singing’ any of the pop classics that he has taken on, then you’ll know what to expect. Thankfully it’s soon blasted away by Anna Prohaska’s most dramatic and enticing piece yet on ‘Th’Expense of Spirit in a Waste of Shame (Sonnet 129)’, which squeezes into two minutes and forty-eight seconds the absolute essence of rock opera with some real actual opera.

‘All Dessen Müd’ dramatizes things even further with an opening German recital carried above a slightly jazz tempting under bed. The music carries on in fairly schizophrenic fashion on what is the most unhinged thing on the album, and it holds attention throughout it full eight and a half minutes. Rufus’ own final vocal contribution comes next on a reprise of ‘A Woman’s Face’, it’s a fairly standard Rufus Wainwright song, in fact, more memorable than a fair few of them. It’s sung as a gentle, slow building popular song with classical overtones merely hinted at. A final spoken word (in German) offering is presented with ‘Sonnet 87’ before the album closes with Anna Prohaska again with ‘Farewell (Sonnet 87)’, an intricate yet never quite ornate opera styled piece that radiates in its own lushness.


I may have approached this with some trepidation, yet having taken it all in it is fair to say it could be my favourite rock/classical crossover yet. The mix of highbrow with rock and popular music moods is carried off with unbelievable expertise. And as a devout non Shakespearean the balance of all of the albums elements leaves nothing overpowering, in fact there a sort of ‘what did I just listen to’ bewilderment (bewonderment?) that I love. It’s just about reverential, respectful, inventive and crazy enough to make the whole thing a success. 

PJ Harvey - The Hope Six Demolition Project, a review.

Anyone who’s taken notice will know that PJ Harvey’s latest album has had a fairly public gestation whilst managing to remain a thing of mystery too. Travels to Afghanistan and Kosovo with a photographer in tow has helped produce an album of songs painted by global politics, war and poverty that has already been preceded by a poetry and poems book (The Hollow of the Hand) and an unusual ‘watch as they record’ installation in London’s Somerset House involving an audience hidden by one-way glass. 

Following an increasingly singular and non-commercial path since 2000’s ‘Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea’ has not harmed PJ Harvey’s success. She’s a musician that produces art that the public seem to love to tap into. That album won the 2001 Mercury Music Prize and coming full circle her last album ‘Let England Shake’ (2011) made her the first to ever win a second Mercury Music award. The album kicks off with ‘The Community of Hope’, a song about a run down American suburb. If it’s pretty straightforward rock’n’roll, then the following ‘The Ministry of Defence’ is far more in your face, a pounding repeated full band riff, massed vocal choruses, paraphrasing from Linton Kwesi Johnson and dissonant saxophone wailing with a closing shot of ‘This is how the world will end’. It’s heavy, unflinching, a militaristic romp and very impressive. 

‘A Line in the Sand’ starts with a Tom Waits like resemblance of music and is a grim recollection of a visit to a refugee camp ‘’I saw people kill each other just to get there first’ tells you the impression the scene made on Harvey, and her belief that the future is there to achieve something good is where she draws her line in the sand. ‘Chain of Keys’ is built upon a bed of artillery drumming, flat baritone saxophones and a tale of a shattered old woman who has seen things that have broken her faith in everything. ‘River Anacostia’ (the river from Maryland into Washington) is a lower key simpler song built on a pulsing synth riff. There’s an underlying spiritual feel but no hope is offered, the message left is ‘What will become of us?’. ‘Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln’ takes us deeper in to Washington, a pretty simple anti rock song with a ghostly feel, it builds into a harsh hot and bothered abrupt finish. ‘The Orange Monkey’ explains the meat of the album, ‘I took a plane to a foreign land, and said, I’ll write down what I find’. 

‘Medicinals’ takes the uncompromising approach further. Sung almost in nursery rhyme style over a percussive sax bled under bed, it’s another song of loss and no hope. ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’ starts on a sample of old blues which is seamlessly woven into the bands pounding marching music and contrasts a scene of broken, injured and sick people living within a major city and inhabiting the same streets as big money men that seem not to care about the poverty that walls their castles of prosperity. The song closes on dissonant saxophones grinding to a halt and is barely over before the jungle beat of ‘The Wheel’ crashes in, weeping for the lost children of a war torn country, ‘Now you see them, now you don’t, I heard it was twenty-eight thousand’ is as harsh a lyrical refrain you could want to hear in a rock and roll song. This is music that paints a very visual image. It’s a song that was its albums leadoff single. When an artist is given the freedom to create without the need to cater towards the hit parade then great things can happen. And that’s where PJ Harvey is, she follows her own path, bares her own soul, and people seem to love it. It’s why I love music, there’s no concession to product here, just creation, artistry and emotion. The closing ‘Dollar Dollar’ shows this perfectly. Harvey sings a tale of how she was left haunted by a beggar boy as she sped away in traffic unable to help despite the attention he garnered. 

What a great record. Musically there’s been little like it. It reminds me of late Bowie, with the stories it tells and the baritone saxes that dominate its mood, reminiscent of the great man’s comeback on ‘The Next Day’, even a sprinkling of ‘Scary Monsters’ guitars in places under the relentless percussive, almost drone like feel of this album. Not that Harvey’s aping anyone else on this record. This album is without apology a Polly Jean Harvey record par excellence. 


Pet Shop Boys - Super, a review.

Pet Shop Boys, now in their 35th year, return with their 13th album proper with Stuart Price (Madonna, The Killers, Kylie amongst others) on main production duties for the second album in a row. They’ve never really put forward a naff album for public consumption but have also only hit the heights of their early albums in occasional flashes.

Opening on a harder dance beat than you’d normally expect with ‘Happiness’ we’re welcomed to PSB13 with a clean, metronomic slice of synth dance pop, a slice of bread with Pet Shop Boys marmite spread all over it. To a fan like me it’s got everything you’d want, but it’s unlikely to garner the band a new generation of fans. Then we’re into lead single ‘The Pop Kids’, and, well, it’s more of the same really. A more involved lyric with a wistful look back to younger days. I can’t agree with the sentiment ‘that rock was overrated’, to me rock is a far more inventive musical form of art than PSB’s brand of electronica but when done well their electronica always entertains, and at least two songs in here you can say it’s done well. ‘Twenty Something’ is a superior slice of euro(vision) pop, it’s an Abba riff over another reflective lyric and the quality-ometer needle stays at the good end of the scale. On paper, ‘Groovy’ has a shallow and empty lyric, but the PSB’s always dealt squarely with irony. Musically it’s a tribute to their younger selves. I think it’s taking the rise out of modern instant celebrity status as fuelled by reality TV.

‘The Dictator Decides’ imagines Bashar Assad or Kim Jong-un into a place where they’ve lost the will ‘to threaten and kill’. Five tracks in and I’m hearing a harder edge to the Pet Shop Boys than I’ve heard for many a year, and a bit more breadth in the lyrics too. ‘Pazzo!’ at least musically carries this approach on, though lyrically there’s little depth. There’s been many a song about madness or sanity that lyrically do it better than this one. Should have been an instrumental. ‘Inner Sanctum’ is also all crashing beats and electro pulses and is virtually an instrumental. It’s reminiscent of the also recently returned Underworld, and if that’s what PSB’s are aiming for on this collection then they’re pulling it off quite well. Despite their earlier protestations ‘Undertow’ is dressed with a pretty atypical rock lyric. In fact, it’s a fairly atypical rock song, just wearing electro pop clothes. Imagine it as an 80’s Bon Jovi anthem, you’ll see what I mean. This is not a criticism, it works pretty well and the needle of quality it still wriggling around nearer the upper end of the scale.

‘Sad Robot World’ leads us into the albums closing third with more fully realised synthpop designs. There sympathy and even empathy for manufacturing robots (‘I thought I heard one crying’). The musical accompaniment is toned down to what you’d expect for the subject matter. It’s a simple but spot on song and ‘Super’ is beginning to emerge as a superior Pet Shop Boys album. ‘Say It To Me’ and ‘Burn’ edge on with the harder beat, and even a promise to burn this disco down. And then they disappear ‘Into Thin Air’, a song of escape built over a shuddering percussive beat.

And so, this is a very good Pet Shop Boys album, the best since the glory days, but will it draw you in for repeated listens? Perhaps not, but then a quality book is rarely re-read, and this a definite good read.


Primal Scream - Chaosmosis, a review.

Primal Scream, Scottish indie/alt rock legends, 36 years young now, have led a varied and bewildering life. Encompassing mid 80’s indie, early 90’s rave scene, challenging electronica, transatlantic rock and most recently straight down the middle pop, they are a band whose new album is always approached with a sense of ‘what’s this gonna be then?’. And that’s exactly how I feel coming face to face with ‘Chaosmosis’, their 11th full length LP. This is Primal Scream’s sobriety album, it’s title referencing French psychotherapy.

Somewhat unexpectedly we’re faced with Madchester in full on Happy Mondays/Soup Dragons mode on opener ‘Trippin’ On Your Love’. Bobby Gillespie is joined by Haim on vocals on a track that genuinely sounds as if it came from 1990. It’s high octane pop and it’s fabulous. Surely the whole album won’t be so specifically retro? Well no, cause immediately we trip 10 years further back in time with the synth pop of ‘(Feeling Like A) Demon Again’. It’s so 80’s it could be La Roux. It’s a cyclical song about a relationship being battered through chemical (as in drugs man) warfare. It may sound sugary to the ears but lyrics like ‘Lost my love, became a ghost, Hurt the ones I love the most’ paint the true horror of the situation. Cheery stuff! ‘I Can Change’ lyrically is the optimistic reply to this, and it grooves on a Roxy pop vibe, with Bobby G even attempting a Bryan Ferry vibrato. So far it’s fairly retro sounding but then even when at their harshest and most inventive Primal Scream have always drawn from the multi coloured tapestry of rocks history.

‘100% or Nothing’ opens with a continuing synth pop vibe but is quickly slashed away by buzzsaw guitars, more Haim backing vocals and more brightside struggling relationship words, ‘The anti-depressants don’t anti-depress’.  And then ‘Private Wars’ chimes in, all modern brit folk, and it becomes clear we’re delving into the most diverse Primal Scream album yet. I really like this track, and even with a lyric like ‘Death in all you taste’ there’s a genuinely more hopeful vibe here. Musically unexpected and a true wonder.

‘Where The Light Gets In’, a Bobby Gillespie and Sky Ferreira (American singer/songwriter, model and actress) duet, returns to bright, synth pinned pop, catchy as hell and again a lyric of contrasting highs and lows. It’s followed by a much more hard-core electronica sound on ‘When The Blackout Meets the Fallout’, a decaying story of crumbled love, a sexless relationship cast adrift in the slums of romance. It’s short, sharp and snappy and in its own way as enticing as anything else here. ‘Carnival of Fools’ unites some of the albums influences in one song, single finger synthpop riff, dancey keys and a killer hook. And this quick-fire album is all of a sudden on the home straight, seemingly almost as soon as it’s begun.

‘Golden Rope’ uses another Scream staple, the Stones riff and groove. And the Happy Mondays are again evoked in the ‘Hallelujahs’ of the chorus, there’s even a sax solo before a heavenly ‘Hallelujah’ choral precedes the final part of the song, a softly sung repeated ‘I know that there is something wrong with me’ which in turn is carried out with a clattering drum beat. And then finally ‘Autumn in Paradise’ is hauled in alongside as it should be on this album, a simple synth riff. It’s not ending on a positive note either, this is as bright an ‘all is lost’ song that you could ever wish to hear. You could even imagine it as a late Abba number without too much effort. ‘I’ve got nothing left to steal, There was something when you came here, there’ll be nothing when you leave’ lyrically tops the album perfectly. There’s oodles of despair and loss, broken love and divorce all wrapped up in as polished a Primal Scream album as there ever could be. It’s good stuff, an easy and uncomfortable listen all at one. That’s the chaos I suppose. A melodic paradox.