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Kids Do the Darnedest Things

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.

 

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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