Kids Do the Darnedest Things

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

Lyrically, Wainwright is relentlessly literary. "Beauty Mark" sports the couplet "I think Callas sang a lovely 'Norma'/You prefer Robeson in 'Deep River,'" and a library full of characters and historical figures make cameos in other compositions: the Elephant Man in "In My Arms," Desdemona and Orpheus in "Damned Ladies," Schubert in "Imaginary Love." The focus upon the erudite calls to mind director Whit Stillman, whose film Barcelona shares a title with a song on the album. Like Stillman, Wainwright is so determined to show off his education that he sometimes falls victim to unconscious self-satire, and while his language is consistently witty, its cleverness sometimes comes at the expense of meaning: "Flow through the veins of town, always frown/Me and my mistress the princess" (from "Foolish Love") is a case in point. But his wonderfully formal singing and the flamboyance of the settings, which are stuffed to the gills with timpani, tuned toms, tack piano, strings and horns, is so perfectly suited to the material that the overall effect is charming. "Danny Boy" is achingly melodic; "April Fools," with its sparkling chorus ("And you will believe in love/And all that it's supposed to be/But just until the fish start to smell/And you're struck down by a hammer") should make Ben Folds green with envy; "Millbrook" is purer Parks than Parks has managed lately; and "Matinee Idol" uses a Kurt Weill progression that's simultaneously dark and chipper--a neat trick. Rufus Wainwright is the type of album they don't make anymore, and if the only reason it's in stores is because of his connections, don't complain.

The same can be said for Sean Lennon's Into the Sun, which is as big a surprise as any. After all, the career of John Lennon's other son, Julian, illustrates why most observers expect so little from prominent progeny. It wasn't that Julian, whose first album arrived on these shores in 1984, couldn't sing; he could. But he had so few ideas of his own that he fell prey to handlers who tried to turn him into a smoother-edged, more pliable Xerox of his old man--and that turned out to be pretty damn boring. He managed two Top 10 hits ("Valotte" and "Too Late for Goodbyes") before anyone noticed his dullness, and a couple more quasi-successful singles ("Say You're Wrong" and "Stick Around") slipped past before the nostalgia wore off entirely. Today he's reportedly hoping for a comeback that will likely never materialize.

On the surface, Sean would seem even more apt to stumble into the trap that claimed his half-brother. The only son of Lennon and Yoko Ono, he was five when his father was assassinated, and in the years immediately afterward, Ono used him in videos as a symbol of her suffering--a huge burden to lay on a youth who probably hadn't yet mastered tying his shoes. His appearances on subsequent Ono albums precipitated more eye-rolling, as did the prominent gigs his first real band, IMA, played in support of Yoko. Embarrassment was hovering on the horizon--and even word that he had signed with Grand Royal, a Capitol spinoff overseen by the Beastie Boys, did little to cork cynics certain that Sean's bow would prompt more cringes than a nude centerfold of Linda Tripp.

How refreshing, then, to discover that Into the Sun is a shaggy, inventive disc brimming with promise. Yuka Honda, who in addition to being Lennon's paramour fronts the intriguing act Cibo Matto ("Whatsa Matto?," May 23, 1996), produced the CD, and the tone she achieves is gentle but adventurous. Electric guitars thrust themselves to the forefront of the mix at times (the introduction to "Home" is all brawny power chords), but they're not the dominant instruments. Instead, Honda supplements acoustic strums with subtle percussion and an arsenal of keyboards ranging from a Hammond B-3 to a Casio V-10. These elements glow on the title cut, "Bathtub" and "Breeze," which has a lovely Brazilian feel--the New York intelligentsia meet the Girl From Ipanema. Lennon raids plenty of other genres on Sun, too. "Photosynthesis" is shambling but groovy jazz fusion; "Queue" mates Brian Wilson with the High Llamas; "Two Fine Lovers" gives Bacharach and David circa the Dionne Warwick era a disco beat; and "Part One of the Cowboy Trilogy" is a country shuffle that's cheerfully inauthentic.

As a lyricist, Lennon is not much interested in complexity: "I never wanted to be sad/I only wanted to be glad/To see the things I never have" (from "Sean's Theme") is pretty much par for the course. But the guileless affection that saturates his love songs to Honda never turns sickly, thanks in part to Lennon's voice, which sounds like his father's minus the slightest hint of sarcasm. He really means it, man--and that's precisely why it works.

Lennon's long-player is too modest to be a classic, but like Rufus Wainwright and Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, it'll worm its way into your affections if you give it half a chance. And because these albums are the products of young artists given the freedom to express themselves without reference to current trends, they feel genuine in ways that are all too rare these days. Rich kids never sounded so good.

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