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.

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