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Kids Do the Darnedest Things

Three members of famous musical families provide a good argument for nepotism.

The next time you read an interview in which the mother, father, brother, sister or child of a star claims that reflected fame didn't help him or her land a new record deal/publishing contract/etc., you have permission to burst out laughing. While the heightened expectations that the kin of luminaries must face are undeniable, so, too, is the fact that their last names open doors that remain shut to ordinary folks. How else do you explain Frank Sinatra Jr.? Frank Stallone? Roger Clinton?

Of course, not every artist whose big break came with being born to the right family has fared poorly: Liza Minnelli, Jane Fonda and Natalie Cole have done all right for themselves, and so have many others. But their totals are matched, if not exceeded, by wannabes who seem to have inherited little of the talent exhibited by the acclaimed parents or siblings who came before them. Take Wilson Phillips and Chris "Son of Stephen" Stills--please. And those who think that the Wallflowers' Jakob Dylan has even a quarter of the gifts possessed by his father, Bob, are likely so intoxicated by Jakob's brooding good looks that they shouldn't be allowed to drive a car until the delusion passes.

Given examples like these, it makes perfect sense that reviewers tend to approach the creative endeavors of such relatives of renown with a chip the size of Nova Scotia on their shoulders. But three recent albums--the late Jeff Buckley's Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, Rufus Wainwright's self-titled debut and Sean Lennon's Into the Sun--demonstrate why an open mind is a happy mind. Rather than simply cloning the work of their moms and dads, these three moved in new and quirky directions--and because of the celebrity they brought to the table with them, they were allowed to do so by their record-company bosses. As a result, their albums are more distinctive than the typical major-label release--and more satisfying, too.

Although Buckley, who was born in 1966, had to suffer through endless comparisons with the father he barely knew, many of these references weren't musical in nature. The reason was simple: Tim Buckley was a late Sixties/early Seventies cult figure whose recordings had been largely forgotten by the mainstream when Jeff emerged in the early Nineties with his first EP, Live at Sin-e. Moreover, journalists tended to care less about Tim's eclectic folk/jazz oeuvre than they did about the broad details of his short life (he died of a drug overdose in 1975, at the age of 28). Jeff was frequently portrayed as following in the footsteps of his doomed father, and unfortunately, this prophecy came true. He drowned in Memphis last spring.

Because of its timing, Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk has the scent of a cash-in about it--a perception that writer Bill Flanagan and Jeff's mother, Mary Guibert, take pains to dispel in the project's liner notes. They needn't have worried: Sketches is as non-exploitative as it could have been under the circumstances. Instead of assembling a best-of package from every bit of flotsam Buckley left behind, the compilers drew upon studio demos cut with Television guitarist Tom Verlaine (an uncommonly sympathetic choice) for a successor to his previous full-length, Grace, as well as from four-tracks Buckley made on his own. Although the latter, which dominate the second disc, are clearly only blueprints, the Verlaine-helmed numbers on the first platter feel like finished products; they sound good just the way they are, and they hang together better than any of Buckley's previous offerings.

Both of the Buckleys were freakish talents whose flightiness led them to skip from one style to another with only the slightest provocation. Of all of Tim's many albums, only 1974's Greetings From L.A., a brilliant, sensuous tour de force that stands up to Van Morrison's efforts during the period, maintains its consistency from beginning to end. With Live at Sin-e and Grace, Jeff seemed to suffer from the same malady: His pop-operatic excursions, mercurial tone poems and harrowing soul-barers were more impressive individually than they were when juxtaposed with each other. But disc one of Sketches has a simple, steady sound that allows Buckley to visit his assorted muses without seeming scattershot: The dramatic rock of "The Sky Is a Landfill" is able to coexist with the sensual jazziness of the lovely "Everybody Here Wants You." Similarly, Buckley's excursions into hooky weirdness ("Nightmares by the Sea") and proto-Cure jauntiness ("Witches' Rave") come across as inspired tangents, not inexplicable indulgences. And if much of disc two is primarily of historical interest, "Murder Suicide Meteor Slave," "Demon John" and the New York Dolls-like "Your Flesh Is So Nice" leave you hungry for what might have been.

By contrast, Rufus Wainwright is all about the future. Rufus's pedigree is an impressive one: Papa Loudon Wainwright III is a folk-based singer-songwriter whose lyrics balance humor and poignancy, while mama Kate McGarrigle is half of the angel-voiced Canadian duo Kate & Anna McGarrigle. However, Rufus refuses to lean too heavily on the mannerisms of either of them. At moments his voice seems like a perfect blend of Loudon's reediness and Kate's delicacy and precision. But musically his model is Van Dyke Parks, an idiosyncratic producer and performer whose credits include collaborations with the Beach Boys and such beguiling solo discs as Song Cycle and Jump! Parks co-produces a couple of tunes here, and his love of American music from the nineteenth and early twentieth century permeates the precedings, giving the album as a whole a sumptuousness that recalls Randy Newman's most ornate arrangements from the early Seventies.

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