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Twice GRAMMY® Award-nominated singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright has a fascinating new album out called Folkocracy which is not quite a “folk” album in the traditional sense. Here he interprets some classic folk songs as well as others you may not have heard before — many of which he was exposed to while growing up with his folk singing parents — and in the best way makes them his own.
From the album’s official press release we learn:
“The older I get, the more I appreciate how valuable my folk knowledge is, to have had it ingrained in me as a child,” Wainwright says. “I’m from a bona fide folkocracy who mixed extensively with other folkocracies such as the Seegers and the Thompsons. I spun off into opera and pop. Now I’m back where it all began.”
There are indeed some classics on Folkocracy such as “Wild Mountain Thyme” — which has been covered by everyone from Judy Collins, Bob Dylan and The Byrds to Ben Folds and Marianne Faithful — and the always tear-inducing “Shenandoah.” Wainwright also includes a lovely version of Neil Young’s “Harvest.” One of the biggest surprises, “Twelve Thirty,” is a soaring pop song originally recorded by The Mama’s & The Papas in the 1960s.
Somehow, all this music works incredibly well together. Produced by longtime collaborator Mitchell Froom (Paul McCartney, Crowded House, Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson), Folkocracyfinds Wainwright supported by a stellar lineup of special guests including Brandi Carlile, John Legend, David Byrne, Sheryl Crow, Nicole Scherzinger, Chaka Khan, Andrew Bird, ANOHNI, Susanna Hoffs, Van Dyke Parks and Madison Cunningham
What makes an album like Folkocracy so great is that it not only pays tribute to and takes ownership of the songs being interpreted, but also in turn educates the listener on a rich legacy of song, music and artists they may have missed along the way. In that sense, Folkocracy fits in that grand tradition of thoughtful cover albums issued by some of our greatest songwriters such as Elvis Costello’s Kojak Variety and David Bowie’s Pinups. This kind of collection offers deep insight into the music that influenced our favorite artists to become songwriters in the first place.
To that, my favorite track so far is one I’d never heard before, Franz Schubert’s “Nacht und Träume” (Night and Dreams), a haunting work for voice and piano. The wiki describes it as “a meditation on night and dreams” which fits the mood of the album perfectly, conveying the mid night melancholy with wordless rich harmony.
Another happy surprise on Folkocracy is Van Dyke Parks’ “Black Gold” featuring the artist on piano. Originally appearing on Mr. Parks wonderful 2013 release Songs Cycled, the song — a dark tale of a doomed oil tanker and its Captain — was one of my favorites on the album which I reviewed previously (and which you can read by clicking here on Audiophile Review).
While Folkocracy is available on high resolution streams (click here for Qobuz and here for Tidal) and CD, I have to say that I am really enjoying listening to it best on vinyl. I appreciate the fact that the album is spread out across four sides of two LPs — so each disc presents a mini sequence of songs to relish in their own right. Its a subtle detail, but one I like.
The probably 180-gram vinyl pressing on Folkocracy is excellent: dark black, well centered and quiet. So those details check out just fine. Overall the recording sounds very good, overall rich yet bright and clear. This is a modern production for sure and I would not be surprised if it was digitally crafted given all of the celebrity collaborators from the world over. Regardless, it sounds fine and very enjoyable with no significant harsh edges impacting the underlying music (kudos to legendary mastering engineer Bob Ludwig for that!).
Folkocracy is a joy. If you are looking to reconnect with melodicism or simply want to hear some great songs you might have missed along the way, do pick this one up.
And now I want to get more of Rufus’ albums on vinyl (most of which I only have on CD).