Rufus Wainwright’s Folkocracy is a reminder of how different a context is the word folk, when there is that Atlantic Ocean dividing America and Europe. This album feels a very North American version, where, broadly, anything much with an acoustic guitar, and on the softer side of rock, fits the bill, with often a fair old slice of the older social commentators, Seeger, Guthrie et al, chucked in for good measure. In the UK, folk tends more to the trad. arr., in style if not necessarily sacrosanct in content, and of a devoutly Celtic or Anglo hue. Wainwright doesn’t totally ignore any particular aul’ country, but Folkocracy is full of nods, sometimes eccentric, to an early 60’s heyday of Kingston Trios, Peter Paul and Mary and that ilk, if with a few left field lurches into Broadway and Hollywood. At times it is astonishing, in a beguiling way, sometimes bewildering and sometimes just plain odd. But, overall, this album is impressive, if more on the side of to be admired more than loved, with a slew of guests adding their varied (and variable) flavors at several stages along the way.
Folkocracy opens well, dispelling immediately the nagging worry some have about Wainwright’s “not for all” voice. Me, I love it, feeling he has a beautifully bittersweetsour keening in his light baritone, and when he dials down the theatrical vibrato, it can be exquisite. Over finger picked electric guitar, Ewan MacColl’s “Alone” has more the feel of Laurel Canyon than the Ballads and Blues club in Soho, the duet vocal of Madison Cunningham cushioning Wainwright’s ennui drenched tones. Peggy Seeger’s “Heading For Home” then steers straight for a Hollywood version of the old West, gloopy strings introducing the banjo driven ballad. With, to my mind, the unusual choice of John Legend to trade verses, it is considerably more anodyne than the original, and smacks of the stage, and is overly sentimental. Legend, frankly, could be anyone, so anonymous is his vocal. The randomness continues with an immaculate reconstruction of the Mamas and Papas for “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Come to the Canyon),” performed with a genuine affection that transcends pastiche, fully utilizing the involvement of Chris Stills, Susanna Hoffs and Sheryl Crow.
“Down in The Willow Garden” is one of those marvelous murder ballads that permeate the folk/country canon, in versions scattered between Ireland and Appalachia. It’s the sort of song Wainwright’s voice excels at, and it is a beauty. Brandi Carlile serves as the sweetness to Wainwright’s sour, and the arrangement is suitably skeletal and sepulchral. “Shenandoah,” by contrast, is a swing and a miss; do we really need another version of a song so ploddingly bereft of merit that even Richard Thompson couldn’t find any way of redemption? I’ll leave it there, but, contrastingly, the delicately crooned chorale of “Nacht und Träume,” some Schubert no less, is a glorious antidote, a palate cleanser that is placed at just the right place in this chaotic tasting menu. It prepares perfectly for the version of Neil Young’s “Harvest” that follows. A rickety hay cart of a rendition, it is a joy, with corn pokey fiddle from Andrew Bird, who, along with Chris Stills, adds some dreamy harmonies. Lovely.
Technically not a cover, “Going to a Town” was first written and released by Wainwright in 2007. Here, he’s stripped it back into the gauntness the lyric deserves. Anohni adds a second voice, sounding less like Anohni than she has ever sounded; both the singers let the lyric do the heavy lifting, with no need for tonsillar pyrotechnic. The strings remain on the gloopy side, but that’s entirely apt and apposite here, further compounding the horror. “High on a Ledge” sadly then falls off said ledge, with David Byrne singing like an uncomfortable thespian engaged against his will for a gig his agent thought might help his career. From the ridiculous to the, um, more ridiculous, Nicole Scherzinger and Wainwright hoof through a mildly electronic “Kaulaner Nã Pua.” To be fair, it is so kitsch that it works, on a bizarre level, largely courtesy that low electronic throb and the unselfconscious steel guitar of Greg Leisz. From OMG to smile in sixty.
“Hush Little Baby” has had some stick in reviews elsewhere, I gather, and I can see where they come from, given the nominal status the song has as a lullaby. Well, I differ: it is a triumph, except maybe don’t play this to any little ‘uns, as it is a wonderfully gothic fable that invokes more brooding fear and discontent than mockingbirds and diamond rings. Sister Martha and half-sister Lucy are here to give some added eerie. It goes on, more verses that anyone knew, building to a climax to dispel sleep for ever. “Black Gold,” with and by Van Dyke Parks, is just ghastly, more Gilbert and Sullivan than the Brecht and Weill stylings of the original. So how about ein kleiner nachtmusik version of “Cotton Eyed Joe,” with, FFS, Chaka Khan? If nein, danke is your first response, steady yourself and give it a whirl, as it is better than it sounds, or even should be. File under odd. Very odd.
Closing the Folkocracy show come a couple of trad. arr.s from the Irish songbook. Ready for a cod operatic version of Arthur McBride? Set to piano, it sticks to the Paul Brady arrangement, if progressively loosely, and it starts quite creditably. Wainwright’s vocals start off with some restraint and the first few verses are fine, his piano dialing down the excesses that later seep in. Of course, it goes all impulsively off-piste, taxing the endurance of even this lover of the song, the seep now a torrent. Somehow, this nadir is reversed by a charming and faithful “Wild Mountain Thyme,” slickly sentimental, sure, but effectively so. If a little heavy on the backing chorale, it is redeemed by the duet vocal of Auntie Anna McGarrigle, with then Chaim Tannenbaum is a bit Josef Locke for his verse. Martha and Lucy also get to add their pieces and if you’re like me, it’s possible the room will seem a bit dusty, especially if you read that Tannenbaum is also playing Mama Kate McG’s banjo.
Tasting menu I called it, and tasting menu it is, mixing the flavors right, left and center. Folkocracy is always a challenge but, on the whole, largely appreciated, which is, I guess, somewhere near how Wainwright might see himself. Some of the selections are dire, but that is merely opinion, and I will wager they will be the high points of others. In the end, Folkocracy is much like Wainwright himself: a courageous part of an expanding family catalog, one that I shall maybe look at more than play, but one that I’m glad is still there.
Folkocracy track listing:
Alone (Ewan MacColl cover)
Heading for Home (Peggy Seeger cover)
Twelve-Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming To The Canyon) (Mamas & Papas cover)
Down in the Willow Garden (Traditional)
Nacht und Träume (Franz Schubert cover)
Harvest (Neil Young cover)
Going to a Town (Rufus Wainwright original)
High on a Rocky Ledge (Moondog cover)
Kaulana Nā Pua (Eleanor Kekoaohiwaikalani Wright Prendergast cover)
Hush Little Baby (Traditional)
Black Gold (Van Dyke Parks cover)
Cotton Eyed Joe (Traditional)
Arthur McBride (Traditional)
Wild Mountain Thyme (Traditional)