Over the rumble of kettle drums, farty blasts of trombone and kid sis Martha's wailing—quite literally—about "fire and brimstone," Rufus Wainwright repeats a straightforward question on Release the Stars' opening number: "Do I disappoint you?" Oh, silly Rufus, it's not that you disappoint so much as you exhaust. Three friggin' tracks of piccolo trumpet? And is that a pennywhistle? Beneath the haughty schmaltz of his fifth LP—embodying Herb Alpert one moment and a particularly peach-scented Little River Band the next—there are only momentary flashes of the high-quality torch songs we fell for so long ago. Given all the silly pop-culture trinkets and London Symphony cameos Stars crams in, subtlety is not an option. And lyrically, we get small-minded bellyaching about being "tired of America" in "Going to a Town" (we too, Rufus!), along with the snobbish "Tulsa," wherein resides a limp cast that includes a "fat guy with the green shirt," an autograph hound and, inexplicably, Killers frontman Brendan Flowers, who "tastes of potato chips in the morning."
The swinging title track might've been one of Wainwright's best and simplest tunes, but it's quickly cluttered up by Sex Mob trumpeter Steven Bernstein's doodling arrangement. So choose instead between "Sanssouci," a tidy pop song discussing the guest list of a Prussian monarch's summer home, and the placid "Leaving for Paris." But overall, the dapper songwriter of yesteryear is so completely bedazzled by aural tinsel that he now sounds like a Busby Berkeley showgirl. Oh, that Rufus wouldn't wink and nudge about a phallic rocket, quote Phantom of the Opera and be parroted by batty old Siân Phillips to get his point across on a tune called "Between My Legs"! Does Stars disappoint? With such grand compensation, we can only offer an encouraging smile and accommodating backrub: "No, Rufus, it was great for us too."