Coffee shop sidestep

Jul 18, 2001 at 12:00 am

Forget ’N Sync; Rufus Wainwright is the true yin to the yang of rap-rock bullies and nu-metalheads. His pop is as fangless as anything you’ll hear this summer, lush in spots, pretty in others, avoiding Limp Bizkit-isms like Radiohead avoids guitars.

For all of their unrockin’ wimpiness, the songs on Poses, Wainwright’s second album, bristle with the elegance of Cole Porter and the pall of Tom Waits, with lots of Stephen Sondheim ornaments tucked into the corners. Wainwright’s weird, whiny tenor collides with noises that range from sparse (solo piano) to overwrought (lavish orchestral touches) to just plain odd (the music-box percussion on “Greek Song”). The light funk of “Shadows” is a rarity, as is the straight-up folkie thing Wainwright does on “One Man Guy.” In large part, Poses’ prettiness is spiked with idiosyncrasy, the textures arranged like flowers at some boho wedding.

If Wainwright does well to sidestep the usual coffee shop introspection common to so many singer-songwriters, his approach sometimes comes off as so much arty mucking about, the sort of not-quite-cabaret b.s. that leads to lots of head-scratching lines and what sounds like amped-up parlor music. But only on the slower numbers, where Rufus gets his faux-chanteuse groove on, does he overindulge. He’s a narcissist, natch, but he’s not a hopeless romantic — he’s more like the music theater major who hung out in his bedroom listening to Lou Reed while his friends were at Oklahoma rehearsal.

Bookending Poses is “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” as good a window on his psyche as anything he’s ever done. As his piano gives way to a chorus of violins, he catalogs his obsessions with the self-absorbed melancholy of some Hollywood megalomaniac from the 1940s. The obsessions threaten to ruin him, he claims, but they’re also the point — without ’em he’d be just another pretty face with nothing to say, trafficking in so much useless beauty.

E-mail Christian Hoard at [email protected].