When Clash spoke to Rufus Wainwright about his last album, ‘Unfollow The Rules’, the enigmatic singer-songwriter (holed up in the library of his house, in a bathrobe) talked about embracing his adopted Laurel Canyon home and its influence on his musical development. The Canyon, he explained, was in his blood: his parents were both deeply connected to the 60s folk scene that centred itself on the hilly, secluded, off-grid area of Los Angeles. The decadent, hedonistic Rufus that consumed all of New York City’s bacchanalian offerings in his twenties and thirties headed West, grew up, grew a beard and calmed down. Now, with ‘Folkocracy’, he has arguably made the finest album of his career.
At the risk of sounding old, they really don’t make records like this anymore. For the most part, this album feels like it might have been an unearthed gem from LA’s choice vintage years. The production from Mitchell Froom is lush and bold, full of strings and sensitive arrangements of the covers that Wainwright hand-picked for the collection. There’s also a brilliant nod to the Canyon with the inclusion of multiple guest singers. Documentaries about the folk-rock scene that made the careers of The Byrds, Joni Mitchell, The Mamas And The Papas, Linda Rondstadt, Buffalo Springfield and countless others offered a vision of a fluid, creative commune, where folks would drop in and out of other artists’ sessions and houses, and Wainwright brings that spirit of freedom to ‘Folkocracy’.
Here you’ll find guest spots from David Byrne on the subtle and tender ‘High On A Rocky Ledge’, pairing the two artists together for the first time since the their version of Bizet’s ‘Au fond du temple saint’ on Byrne’s ‘Grown Backwards’. I’ve always felt that their 2004 collaboration was a special moment in both artists’ respective careers, and to hear their voices weaving around one another once again is a beautiful, poignant, joyous re-connection. Another reprise comes with ‘Black Gold’, pairing Wainwright with the legendary Van Dyke Parks, who produced two songs on the singer’s debut album twenty-five years ago. Their rendition of ‘Black Gold’ has a theatrical, jazzy outlook, its back-and-forth motion evoking the passage of the oil-carrying ship in the song. A self-proclaimed “folk fudge” comes with a new version of Wainwright’s own ‘Going To A Town’, finding his voice twinned with ANOHNI, who previously made a celebrated appearance on Wainwright’s ‘Old Whore’s Diet’ twenty years ago. The version of ‘Going To A Town’ might have a mature presentation but its incontrovertibly sad message of America being completed and irreparably fucked seems to have an even greater resonance the year before another election.
Two of the best moments come when Wainwright taps directly into the Lauren Canyon firmament. ‘Harvest’ finds him offering a new take on Neil Young’s seminal song with Andrew Bird and Chris Stills, the son of Young’s former bandmate Stephen Stills. The harmonies between the three vocalists here are utterly breathtaking, delivered over a fragile strummed guitar arrangement. Stills pops up again on the faithful and stand-out cover of The Mamas And The Papas’ 1967 ‘Twelve-Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming To The Canyon)’, with Wainwright and Stills taking the roles of John Phillips and Denny Doherty, while Susanna Hoff and Sheryl Crow tackle Mama Cass and Michelle Phillips’ vocals. ‘Twelve-Thirty’ describes John Phillips’s transformational migration from NYC to the Laurel Canyon neighbourhood. It thus documents a pivotal moment in 1960s music and culture, as well as acting like a fitting metaphor for Wainwright’s own move to California.
While, for the most part, this is a celebration of other artists’ folkocracies, Wainwright is well aware of his own place within all of this. The cover of ‘Going To A Town’ is case in point, but more obvious still is the collaborations with other members of the Wainwright clan.
On the haunting version of ‘Hush Little Baby’, he is joined by sisters Martha and Lucy, while the album’s closing track – a cover of Scottish / Irish ballad ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ – brings together his sisters, aunt Anna McGarrigle, cousin Lily Lanken and family friend Chaim Tennenbaum for some utterly heart-wrenching vocal harmonies. The stately rendition of this stirring, frequently-covered song is rounded out by Tennenbaum playing a banjo that belonged to Wainwright’s mother, the late Kate McGarrigle. Its prominent inclusion strikes a deeply personal note, concluding a collection that is deeply reverential to the Americanised folk music form, and which also gratefully repays the debt that Rufus Wainwright owes it.
Words: Mat Smith / @mjasmith