I pay very little attention to popular music, so when I heard that Rufus Wainwright was recreating Judy Garland's legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall concert song for song, I wasn't really sure who the hell he was. I had heard the name before: I knew that he was an openly gay singer/songwriter, and that he was the son of singer/songwriter Loudon Wainwright III. But I had never actually heard Rufus sing until I saw him in a guest appearance on "The Graham Norton Show" on BBC America.
I should have known right then that there would be trouble ahead. Wainwright's performance on that show was nasal, sloppy, and intolerable. But, hey, I thought: Maybe it was an off night. Apparently not.
I was greatly looking forward to listening to Wainright's album. As stereotypically gay as this might seem, I'm a huge Judy Garland fan, and I grew up listening to her Carnegie Hall album. It's a fascinating train-wreck of a performance, like most of the rest of Judy's career, but it's never less than entertaining. I used to listen over and over to "You Go to My Head," dumb-struck that Judy at one point goes up on her lyrics and sings:
You go to my head
And...I forgot the goll-darned words...
To Wainwright's credit, he recreates the flub when he delivers that particular song. But that's really the only thing he shares with Judy Garland. Judy wasn't really so much a great singer as she was an incredible stylist, a hell of a performer, and a tortured soul who was seemingly coming to pieces before your very ears (and eyes, as evidenced by her repeated performances of the same songs with the same orchestrations on her painful-yet-unmissable variety program, "The Judy Garland Show"). With Judy, it was all about volume and vibrato, but there was also an undeniable heart and plenty of good old-fashioned gay-diva angst.
As for Rufus Wainwright's renditions, well, to paraphrase the late Lloyd Bentsen, Rufus, you're no Judy Garland. Is this what passes for vocal quality these days? Sloppy intonation, piercing nasal resonance, and a physiological inability to form an "E" vowel? Actually all of his vowels are annoyingly imprecise, but his "E's" are especially egregious. ("Yow made may love yow, Ah didn't wanna dow et...")
I must be in the minority here, because Wainright's sold-out Carnegie Hall audience goes absolutely ape-shit at the end of every number, apparently under the mistaken impression that they're witnessing some kind of genius. But on song after song, Wainwright proves that he can't hold a candle to Garland. One possible exception is George and Ira Gershwin's "How Long Has This Been Going On?," which, while still painful, at least illuminates what Wainwright's legion adoring fans might see in him: a quirky, slurring delivery combined with a kind of smoky introspection.
The term "song stylist" is often used euphemistically about someone who, although not the best musician, delivers a song with a certain intangible something. For a terrific example of same, Wainright need look no further than his sister, Martha Wainwright, who makes a guest appearance on the album singing the hell out of Harold Arlen's "Stormy Weather." Sister Martha is no great shakes in the vocal department either, yet she imbues the song with a certain Billie Holliday-esque, whiskey-voiced pathos, a contrast that made what's wrong with her brother's vocal stylings all the more obvious.
Perhaps Rufus Wainwright has built his popularity and reputation more as a songwriter than as a performer, or maybe he's just out of his idiom with Garland's material. Chances are, I'll never find out, because I can't imagine picking up any of his other recordings. I'll stick to Judy Garland, thank you very much. And, unless you're mad for Rufus yourself, yet still want to witness him flailing ineffectually with material he has no business performing, I suggest you do the same.