Tuesday, April 17, 2012

If you like Rufus Wainwright, thank Judee Sill

Back in the halcyon musical days of 2001 (that same year would see the release of Ryan Adams' Gold, Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and Cake's Comfort Eagle), Rufus Wainwright released Poses, an album that is so revered among critics, fans and fellow musicians that it established Wainwright as a top artist of his generation, a footing he still maintains to this day. Listen first to the title track from that album, a gorgeously symphonic, polyphonic elegy that blends elements of classical music, Broadway and folk revival:

It's tempting to believe that a sound as distinctive as Wainwright's, blending so many traditional influences in his creative way, has no predecessor. It's tempting to want to believe he has forged a unique sound. But in music, there is rarely such a thing, and in this case, Wainwright has taken a page directly from the playbook of folk-era innovator Judee Sill.

Who, you ask? Judee Sill's story is tragic and now mostly forgotten, which is unfortunate, because the music she wrote during her brief, troubled life has gone on to influence countless musicians -- Shawn Colvin, Joanna Newsom and, most relevant here, Rufus Wainwright.

As a point of comparison, listen to Sill's symphonic, elegiac ballad "The Kiss" from her 1973 album Heart Food:

To quote Alex Stimmel's excellent biography of Sill on allmusic.com, "Lushly orchestrated, the album featured Sill's voice in multiple overdubs, often in a four-part chorale or fugue." This could as easily describe Poses, which sets itself apart with these exact same hallmarks.

So, if you like Rufus Wainwright, thank Judee Sill, may she rest in peace.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

If you like Justin Townes Earle, thank Dr. John

Maybe it's the horns. Since his last album, Justin Townes Earle (Steve Earle's son, for those keeping score) has mellowed and, well, funkified. In an eclectic-influences-from-New-Orleans kind of way.

Listen to "Baby's Got a Bad Idea," from last month's Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now:

If you're familiar with Dr. John, the godfather of the unique pastiche of blues, funk, R&B and second-line brass marching band that he dubs "voodoo music," then no further explanation is needed. Earle's track is a study at the feet of the master.

But if you're less familiar with the musical institution that is Dr. John, listen to this 2009 live version of one of his best-known tracks, "Iko Iko":

(Or better yet, get on the Spotify and listen to the original album version of that song, technically a cover of an old 1950s Bo Didley-style blues, one that he has all but co-opted and made his own after 40 years of playing it.)

Hear it? The horns, of course. The adventurous, improvised stride piano. The funky rhythm. The bluesy growl of his voice. All a direct inspiration for the Justin Townes Earle track.

Dr. John has a new album out this week, too, produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, (which I mention only to demonstrate that the hipsters appreciate this legend as much as the legends do.) There's a nice little in-studio preview here.

But in the meantime, remember: if you like the new Justin Townes Earle, thank Dr. John.