Unfollow the Rules: The Paramour Session
Rufus Wainwright and Amsterdam Sinfonietta Live
Sliding bassoon-like warbler and modern Tin Pan Alley songwriter Rufus Wainwright might not seem like a guy apt to drop many live albums, a thing more akin to say, the Dead or Springsteen. Yet in his still-lean recording career he’s released the more-intimate Milwaukee at Last!!! in 2009 and 2007’s grandly showbizzy Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall before issuing 2021’s double salvo of unique in-concert collections. Re-configuring his initial cosmopolitan brand of jazzy folk and cabaret pop for 2020’s bold Unfollow the Rules, the first of these, the pandemic-endeavored Paramour Session, takes on a truly humorous, embraceable vibe.
Recording in the beloved ballroom of the elegant old Paramour Estate in Los Angeles with just a pianist, guitarist, and string quartet was the perfect match for the graceful courtliness of his 2020 album’s material (as well as a stripped-bare, syllable-racing take on 2007’s “Going to a Town” that doubles its melancholy and then some). Wainwright’s always-bewitching vocal stylings and occasional booming delivery are brought down to bite-size mouthfuls intimately and warmly on piano-driven Unfollow favorites “My Little You” and “Devils and Angels (Hatred).” For those who don’t care for a Rules redux, there are two new songs that capture the best of what only Wainwright can do: ruminate on long-term relations with quirk and stateliness (“Happy Easter”) and modernize the classically mannered, old-school New York City song on “Treat a Lady.”
Rufus Wainwright and Amsterdam Sinfonietta Live, recorded in 2017 during a tour of the Netherlands with the all-string ensemble, finds the operatic crooner leaping lovingly above the supple histrionics of an equally theatrical orchestra, but with as much taste and restraint as a Noel Coward musical. Wainwright’s own “Gay Messiah” finds the vocalist hitting its highs nobly while the Sinfonietta moves upward alongside him, and “Foolish Love” softly and slooowly paces itself until its honky-tonk bridge and its countless false endings.
But more than anything, the Sinfonietta and the singer take to a handful of other people’s songs with care, invention, and consideration. Their take on Irving Berlin’s classic “How Deep Is the Ocean?” is a study in symmetry and haunting refrains, while Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire” has the feel of a gypsy operetta. Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want” finds Wainwright aping her jazzy Californian romanticism with a dash of his own complexity to carry its melody. “Excursion à Venise”—originally by his mother Kate McGarrigle and her sister Anna—becomes a rhythmically galloping, stringed western hootenanny, and Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” is elegiacally and epically rendered (in French, no less) with a grand sawed-stringed finale worthy of the orchestra and its friendly vocalist.