It’s hard to imagine an American musical genre with a wider spectrum of fans than country music. Drawing on listeners of all ages, from all races and creeds, gay and straight, and political affiliations, it’s probably the one genre in which listeners mix in peaceful harmony. With the exception of a few artists (talking about you, Toby Keith and Blake Shelton), the LGBT community is welcome at concerts by Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson, LeAnn Rimes, Carrie Underwood, as well as out country artists such as Brandy Clark, Ty Herndon, and Chely Wright, and others.
Anybody who counts themselves as a Rufus Wainwright fan knew that we were going to lose him to opera sooner or later. All of the signs were there, beginning with the song “Damned Ladies” on his brilliant 1997 eponymous debut album. Wainwright often discussed his love, rather obsession, with opera, so none of this should come as a surprise. In 2015, a double disc recording of Wainwright’s 2009 opera Prima Donna was released, making it more or less official. Or did it? Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets (Deutsche Grammophon), Wainwright’s musical observance of the Bard’s 400th anniversary year, does something remarkable. It seamlessly combines Wainwright’s opera fixation with his pop passion, as he set selected sonnets to music. In addition to Rufus himself, the album features a stellar array of guest vocalists, including opera diva Anna Prohaska, singing sister Martha Wainwright, Florence Welch (of Florence and the Machine), as well as spoken passages performed by Carrie Fisher, William Shatner, Helena Bonham Carter, Siân Phillips, and others. Perhaps most amazing is the song “Unperfect Actor (Sonnet 23),” in which Wainwright rocks harder on record than ever before.
If you stick around in the music biz long enough, sometimes you return to the record label where you started. Paul McCartney will be doing so after inking a deal with Capitol. Pure & Simple (Dolly / RCA), the new album Dolly Parton, who recorded for RCA from 1968 until 1985, is another example of an artist returning to the roost. Pure & Simple is the absolute right name for this ten-track album that features eight new Parton compositions and two classics from the archives, with production that is respectful of the artist. Famous for timeless love songs (“I Will Always Love,” for instance), Parton is still able to find new ways to express affection in songs such as “Never Not Love You,” “Outside Your Door,” “Head Over High Heels,” and “Forever Love.” Parton also puts her own spin on the cheatin’ tune with “Can’t be that Wrong.”
Remember Madonna’s 2003 “rock” album American Life? Neither does anyone else. Lady Gaga, who, let’s be honest, is essentially the Madonna of the 21st century, does her forebear one better with Joanne (Streamline/Interscope). She rocks with a feverish fervor, takes a country detour (à la Cyndi Lauper) and still provides plenty of opportunities for her fans to dance. First and foremost, Gaga sounds great. Her voice, unfettered by the faux-disco of her first two albums, verges on chill-inducing. The modern country of the marvelous title cut, “Sinner’s Prayer” and tearjerker “Million Reasons,” all of which she co-wrote with Mark Ronson (!), have the potential to extend her audience into the Red States. Retro soulful numbers such as “Come to Mama” and the Prince-ly “Hey Girl” (a duet with Florence Welch) also nicely expand her repertoire. Gaga even conjures the late Donna Summer’s early 1980s rock period on “Perfect Illusion,” while reviving the lost art of dance-rock on “John Wayne” and multi-faceted opener “Diamond Heart.” The deluxe edition includes three additional tracks.
There’s something so wonderful about holiday standards sung a cappella. Wouldn’t you agree? Pentatonix, featuring gay members Mitch Grassi and Scott Hoying, certainly does. A Pentatonix Christmas (RCA) brings the a cappella group’s holiday release tally to three, including the 2012 EP PTXmas and 2015’s full-length That’s Christmas To Me. In addition to two originals, “The Christmas Sing-Along” and “Good To Be Bad,” the quintet adds its distinctive touch to holiday favorites including “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Up on the Housetop,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Pentatonix also earns points for teaming up with the legendary Manhattan Transfer on “White Christmas” and digging out Nsync’s “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays.” The five-voice group also performs a lovely rendition of Leonard Cohen’s oft-covered “Hallelujah,” although the appropriateness of the song’s inclusion on a disc of Christmas songs is puzzling to say the least.
REACHING OUT TO THE GAY AND LESBIAN COMMUNITY?
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