Hedwig and the Angry Inch gained some attention because, first of all, it’s a rock musical—what could be more self-indulgent than that? And sure, it gained attention because of its subject matter: the tale of a kinda post-operative transsexual’s rock star dreams. But what kept it in the public eye was the simple fact that the story was fascinating and the songs were good. Underneath all the trappings that people could easily latch onto—the glam influences, the sight of Hedwig in that wig, the animation of whales with legs—were powerful songs that effectively conveyed the complexities of Hedwig’s story.
With Wig in a Box, some pretty big names pay homage, and for a good cause. All profits from the sale of Wig in a Box go to the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which (in its own words) is “the oldest and largest not-for-profit, multi-service agency dedicated to serving lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth, providing a broad range of vital programming including: Educational services in the Harvey Milk School; individual, group, and family counseling, concrete services and case management for homeless and at-risk teenagers.” In the case of this particular record, proceeds shouldn’t be a problem: this is one of the liveliest, most vital tribute records in recent memory.
Rufus Wainwright kicks things off with “The Origin of Love”, the Hedwig universe’s mythological retelling of how the sexes were once combined, before jealous and fearful gods split them apart. Wainwright’s sigh of a version is faithful to the original in terms of its keen sense of drama and epic scope. Jonathan Richaman’s reprise, which closes the album, favors a more subdued, acoustic delivery. Both work, though; Wainwright’s rendition gets you amped up for what’s to come, and Richman’s mildly celebratory take brings you back down to earth.
In between, you have Sleater-Kinney and the B-52s’ Fred Schneider mustering all their vitriol to explain the meaning of “The Angry Inch”, an unfettered Frank Black creating a perversely catch mix of country lope and needly, rockabilly guitar in “Sugar Daddy”, and the Polyphonic Spree delivering a stately, fairly restrained (for them) take on the show tune stylings of “Wig in a Box”. Your enjoyment of Bob Mould’s electronica-driven version of “Nailed” probably comes down to whether you enjoyed his last album, but to these ears it holds a groove pretty well with several interesting changes in tempo. Spoon do a fine job of adapting “Tear Me Down” to their ramshackle aesthetic, and the Bens’ (Kweller, Folds, and Lee) poppy but plaintive take on “Wicked Little Town (Tommy Gnosis Version)” complements the Breeders’ gentle, understated “(Hedwig Version)” earlier on the record.
An unexpected surprise comes in the form of “Milford Lake”, a new track by Hedwig creators Stephen Trask and John Cameron Mitchell. The song starts off as an evocation of small town life, clarifies into thoughts of personal regret (imagery from the town’s history of floods gives way to lyrics like “water washes away many things / But I can’t come clean” and “We’re gonna drown”). The song’s a really nice touch that adds a subtle new layer to the Hedwig story.
All in all, there’s little to complain about with Wig in a Box. Trask and Mitchell were reportedly working on two new songs for the disc—“The Water Song” and “U.F.O.‘s”. “The Water Song” may very well be “Milford Lake”, and hopefully any other songs will soon see the light of day. The disc also nearly had Dolly Parton as a participant, and that would have been an interesting listen, to say the least. As it stands, though, Wig in a Box is a worthy tribute to a strong piece of work, one that seems to gain new converts and appreciation each time it’s experienced.