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RUFUS TAKES MILWAUKEE

I have a huge crush on Rufus Wainwright. Sure, the 36-year-old singer-songwriter is gay and I'm a registered hetero, but no matter: I totally dig the dude. In fact, catch me on the right day, and I'll say Wainwright is my favorite living male vocalist. Ben Ottewell, from the British jam-pop band Gomez, is sublimely distinctive. And Raul Malo is darn good, too. But today? Rufus gets the nod.

The prodigal son of singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle has a new live album, Milwaukee At Last!!!, which hits store shelves on Tuesday. There's an accompanying DVD, with 23 songs, directed by Albert (Gimme Shelter) Maysles. Wainwright mainly focuses on cuts from his 2007 album, Release the Stars, which was cinematic, operatic and downright bombastic.

Unfortunately, it was also overlooked. But blame Wainwright for that; he's a restless but generous artistic spirit who, in only the past two years, has also re-created Judy Garland's infamous April 23, 1961, show at Carnegie Hall and released a full-length opera, Prima Donna, all in French. It's hard to keep up with the man's projects, but it's worth it.

To get an idea of Wainwright and his unique brand of pop - a regal pop that touches on jazz, folk, show tunes and world music, but pop nonetheless - let's start with Elton John's 1975 Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. Imagine that concept album, which alternates from the rootsy title track to Someone Saved My Life Tonight, as performed by a New York City wit who has watched The Wizard of Oz too many times. Now throw in Irish ballads, 1920s Hollywood, drug addiction, drag bingo, a liberal agenda, Francophilia, high romance and a raging libido.

Still with me? Good.

If that sounds over-the-top - Rufus alternates between Busby Berkeley outlandish and Tom Waits contemplative - his voice is the ultimate polarizing force. He doesn't so much enunciate as unhinge his lantern jaw and allow the lonely-boy yearning to pour out, a molasses-thick vocal trick that, at its loudest and loosest, borders on Tuvan throat singing. Offbeat, but gorgeous.

In covering Garland, his delivery was rich, quick, campy - a talented stage kid singing along to his parents' record collection. But on the song Release the Stars, featured on the new album, he swoons like a besotted cabaret star on the eve of retirement. His crack seven-piece band indulges his grand gestures with brass snap and piano boogie. The song is a heck of a showstopper - but Wainwright decides to open Milwaukee At Last!!! with it, daring himself to best his own drama. Did I mention he's cocky, too?

It's not all loud, proud. Wainwright can get quiet and brooding, too, as on the bitter Going to a Town ("I'm so tired of you, America") and Not Ready to Love/Slideshow, which plays like a mesmerizing seven-minute movie, perfect for end credits and/or your own breakup blues.

For all his big ideas and strong ambition, Wainwright is an entertainer first, ultimately intent on wooing the masses. If that means wearing lederhosen and dressing up like Judy Garland (check and check), so be it. When you work in rare air like Rufus Wainwright does, the rules are meant to be remade.

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The Jiffy Lube Playlist

There's no doubt that the MAZD, my "A"-less jalopy, is closing in on 200,000 miles because of Jiffy Lube. Oil changes are essential; I understand that . . . uh, after five cars. And yet, dealing with the Lube always makes me feel like a dope, a Jiffy Rube. First off, there's the inevitable air-filter shakedown. Or a serpentine belt. Or tire rotation. The thing is, they could tell me my "bahsnakna loop" is awry, and I wouldn't know. And yet, when they beckon me to the garage - "Mr. Daly, please come with us . . ." - I tighten up for the hard sell. "Sir, you have a family of wombats living in your air filter." "Next time," I say. I always hit 'em with "next time." The best feeling is leaving the Lube having spent less than $40. But sometimes they get me. And I try to convince myself it was for the best. After all, a $90 bahsnakna loop really makes a world of difference.

1 Snake Oil Steve Earle

2 A Change Sheryl Crow

3 Greased Lightning John Travolta

4 Under the Hood Billy Ray Cyrus

5 Radiator Family Force 5

6 What's NextFilter

7 Jiffy Jam Jerry Reed

8 Fix You Coldplay

9 A Thousand Miles Vanessa Carlton

10 Sucker John Mayer

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The Swayze Line

When Patrick Swayze died Monday from pancreatic cancer at 57, we lost one of our better actors-turned-singers. Oh sure, his 1987 hit She's Like the Wind wasn't exactly Grammy caliber, but it was a whole lot better than, say, Jack Wagner's All I Need or anything from the Don Johnson oeuvre. Swayze actually got his start on Broadway; he played Danny Zuko in Grease. So there's some cred there.

In fact, I like to judge all warbling thespians according to a little thing I call the Swayze Line, a solid demarcation point for actors-turned-singers. Golden throats below the Swayze Line? William Shatner, Bruce Willis, Philip Michael Thomas, Joe Pesci, Traci Lords and anyone who starred in Full House.

Better-than-average entertainers hovering above the Swayze Line? Eddie Murphy, David Soul, Jamie Foxx, Zooey Deschanel and Lee Majors (Remember The Fall Guy theme? "I'm the unknown stuntman . . ." Love it!)

If we're talking the very best actor-turned-singer of all time, you have to like John Travolta fighting for that top spot. (Maybe it should be called the Danny Zuko Line?) And there's argument to be made for Miley "Hannah Montana" Cyrus, too, at least in terms of success. (I'm not buying that she was a singer first. The Mouse House is brilliant at turning cute blobs of ham into multimedia stars.)

But just for kicks, I'm going with John Belushi as my favorite actor-turned-singer. C'mon, Jake Blues? That Joe Cocker impression on SNL? And how about his Louie, Louie on the Animal House soundtrack? He was a mess, but Bluto could croon.

John Belushi

John Travolta

Zooey Deschanel

Jamie Foxx

Lee Majors

David Soul

Eddie Murphy

THE SWAYZE LINE

Traci Lords

David Charvet

Joe Pesci

Full House Cast

Philip Michael Thomas

Bruce Willis

William Shatner

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