Vicious World - Plays the Music of Rufus Wainwright (2011)

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Vicious World
Originally named for a Rufus Wainwright song, it was perhaps inevitable that Vicious World would eventually devote an entire album to this underrated contemporary singer-songwriter. That doesn't make the prospect any less daunting, considering the sharp turns and blind alleys associated with Wainwright's deeply idiosyncratic style.

But Vicious World, a septet co-led by saxophonist Aaron Irwin and trombonist Matthew McDonald, matches the music's mysterious melodicism with an expanded lineup that also includes lush textures from violinist Eliza Cho and cellist Maria Jeffers—notably on the elegiac “Memphis Skyline." Their interesting reimaging of 11 Wainwright songs, recorded in South Philly, is set for release today from Spinaround Records.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: On 2003's 'Want One,' Rufus Wainwright used his voice to display something so often ignored these days—melody.]

It's an album of lasting depth, filled with both poignant pauses and plenty of swing—no small surprise. “Going to a Town," you realize, has a structure not that all different from the standard “Autumn Leaves." Other times, Plays rocks a little: Guitarist Sebastian Noelle—who along with bassist Thomson Kneeland is part of the well-regarded Aaron Irwin Group, embedded below—rips off a jagged guitar signature to “This Love Affair," adding a gnarled danger to Vicious World's stomping second-line beat. Drummer Danny Fischer then amps that rat-a-tat rhythm up to a baroquely militaristic fever pitch on “Matinee Idol."

Then, there are these sensitive arrangements from Irwin, also featured on clarinet and flute here. That's perhaps best heard on “Dinner at Eight," a swirling delight. (Irwin handled the charts on seven of the tunes here; McDonald arranged the rest.) McDonald, who has appeared with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and Ken Peplowski, is particularly expressive on “Natasha," a lithe bit of romanticism.

Taken together, Play the Music of Rufus Wainwright ends up as an intriguingly complex amalgam—one part unrequited love poem, one part swinging chamber jazz, one part contemporary classical ensemble. And really, unlike anything I've heard before.

Visit Michael McDonald's MySpace page or Aaron Irwin's Web site for more information on Vicious World and the Irwin Group. Find tickets to see Rufus Wainwright on tour this summer here.

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