Hailed as another “new Dylan” when first he surfaced in the 70s. Whereas Bob observed and commented safely from on-high, Loudon Wainwright offered first person confessionals right in the thick of it. Likewise, where Leonard Cohen wrapped his life-songs cycles in the high concepts of death and romance, Loudon sang witty ditties that pointed out the silly minutiae of human relationships, naming names and pointing fingers, albeit fortunately including himself as main culprit.
The singer/songwriter’s first two classic albums have just been collected, with an added bonus track. Produced by Arif Mardin, a man and his acoustic guitar laid bare is what you get The playfully titled Album II the more accomplished of the pairing, but the listener should find both equally interesting.
His voice nasally high in his youth, one sometimes feels a deeper intonation might have served one or another narrative’s with more gravitas, but then the voice suits a bright young innocent abroad just as well if we view the songs through such eyes. Certainly, the breadth of his acoustic playing demonstrates more versatility than others who attained music’s Olympic heights before him.
It can be argued, these days, the old man is more famous for his family, than his music, be that lovers or offspring. However, I would recommend you check Surviving Twin, the live performance film that can be found on Netflix where he outlines how his father shaped him, and interspersed with spoken word narratives from Wainwright II’s Life Magazine articles.
Therein lies the secret recipe that imbues the singer’s song-writing style; he adapts the essay to song. Be that vignette, anecdotal short story, or extended personal observation accounted for in hindsight without too great a sense of self-reflected criticism. What is, is, or at least was; like it or leave it. We can join in on the joke or find ourselves moral observers to misdeeds gone awry, often both at the same time.
The self-titled debut opens with Top of Form ‘School Days’, It’s the wistful tale of a privileged American prep-school youth, whose fanciful reading helps him bed local maiden’s, pretty or otherwise. There’s a sense of longing for the innocence of what was yet so recent. Performed in Pollyannish manner, there’s this nagging feeling that’s also wishful thinking, and the bravado and bullshit of all young would-be studs is present and accounted for between the lines.
In contrast, the more mournful ‘Hospital Lady’ that follows observes the ageing factor in the opposite sex, what possibly was, is, and is inevitable. ‘Ode To A Pittsburgh’ exudes a distanced respect, an oblique anthropomorphic look at the American town and time spent residing there, while musically there’s a playful groove running in and out, that only the cold-hearted among us won’t be able to shuffle or bop quietly about to. Continuing the juxtaposition of upbeat and down, we get the cynical church time blues of ‘Glad To See You’ve Got Religion’ next, but then ‘Uptown’ follows in a similar vein as if Lou Reed got hold of a bunch of a bunch of young Paul Simon lyrics, put them through Will Burrough’s cut-up literary technique and presented them in such a way no-one was supped to notice.
The resounding drone-like chords of ‘Black Uncle Remus’ draw you in before lifting into a jazz-time rag and roller. Here Wainwright focusses from the general to personal in his commentary, a down and out alcoholic bum come banjo-player inevitable, and possibly unpreventable blues outlined. The culmination of the madness so many had done in any god’s name was apparent to many by the late 60’s, and the concept of atheism was gaining tract. Many of the numbers postulate or skirt around such issues, but none are issued with such biblical wrath as ‘Four Is A Magic Number’.
Returning to ragtime, this deceivingly innocent music form belies the dark confessionalism of ‘I Don’t Care’, as scorn is poured on a lover, with an opening couplet of “I think you will be happy to know I don’t love you no more” you know this isn’t going to end well. Yes, much venom is espoused along the way.
‘Central Square Song’ is a song that takes a rare, completely observational outlook. The prequel to The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale Of New York’ if you will, a drunken couple, their journey home, the fight that ensues and the sinister “Man, it was a beautiful sight” punchlines from Wainwright, adding unhealthy potency. Honesty and truth appear in a far nicer form via ‘Movies Are A Mother To Me’ echoing several essays Gore Vidal would write on a similar subject decades later, in a far shorter form.
Wearing a smile on his face while giving religion another kicking where it hurts, ‘Bruno’s Place’ completes debut album. Musically, played out in folksy troubadour manner, the true face of the counter culture is exposed. The young Loudon Wainwright III may well have agreed with Joni that may have been stardust but to his mind we were never going back to the garden.
Album II came but a year later. If there is the that feel life had treated Wainwright better, less oppressive and accusatory fingers being pointed and more so fingers crossed, there were also more complex interpersonal relationships being discussed. The performances themselves, more seasoned in approach. ‘Me And My Friend The Cat’ opens proceedings with a happy folk rocking hip jive groove. On the surface, it’s about lounging around and discussing this and that, though the implication that the titular cat is not the four-legged feline variety and the conversation being avoided is one that a couple should break up, is the lingering query I came away with.
It’s followed starkly by ‘Motel Blues’, the tale of meeting someone on the road, and making hay while the sun shines in a hotel bed. Wainwright’s lyrics tend to excuse him of predatory motives: “your girlfriend said You were 19,” intimating he’s not even going to ask, “I’ll buy you breakfast, They’ll think you’re my wife,” divergent praise. Rock movie Almost Famous and biographies like Pamela Des Barres’ I’m With The Band try to give a more rounded on the subject of groupies. Here, in breathy melancholy, guitar picking tenderly, it’s a seductive come-on, the rights and wrongs we can debate warily, but if both parties are of a consenting age and happy to take part can we really stand on our moral hobby horse?
‘Nice Jewish Girls’ follows in turn, revealing early infatuations, while ‘Be Careful There’s A Baby In The House’ with its homely back porch country blues twang plays out like a cautionary lullaby: does having a child mean an end to its parents’ sexual relationship? Should a flailing relationship be wary of arguments upsetting a child? This and several inconvenient questions are deployed.
Mental well-being a half a century away for most, depression, self-doubt and life just getting no top of you have always been with us, and ‘Medley: I know I’m Unhappy/Suicide Song/Glenville Reel’ features the madness of despair-with-a smile under such circumstances in just over three minutes. Following less upbeat is ‘Saw Your Name In The Paper’, Wainwright sings in the third person, but it could well be about him, the themes of A Star Is Born as applicable for a megastar as much as the five minutes of fame offered yesterday’s newspaper reality TV show celebrity. ‘Samson And The Warden’ delineates a stint in gaol, on dope charges; a hippy mantra stewed in irony, begging his hair not be cut. Played on piano, there’s something of a Jackson Browne feel to this one.
Between mundane observations of people and objects incongruously placed, reflections-of-self are pondered in the slow winding ‘Plane Too’, and if this and the preceding numbers are the contemplations of a doubting young man, ‘Cook That Dinner Dora’ suggests sanctity can be found in the familiarity of the past, only for ‘Old Friend’ to exclaim otherwise. ‘Old Paint’ follows, as if decisions made from those last few songs leads to new adventures in this country & western slow twanging, his wife of the time, Kate McGarrigle adds her own supporting vocal talents to this one.
Album II finishes with the epic intensity of ‘Winter Song’, that still clocks in at only three and a half minutes. Big echoing acoustic chords and richer melodies within play while Wainwright paints a vivid picture of the changing of the seasons. However, it’s the culmination of feelings expressed over the course of this album, and the lines “One day this weary winter will be gone, Don’t be fooled it won’t be gone for good,” affirm that there is an awareness that real depression isn’t easily avoided. Bonus track ‘Drinking Song’ finishes this classic album collection. A rerecorded version would appear on his next long player, Album III. Part calypso rhythm there’s also a thriller tension that runs through it, as here wry observations of life on the street, during a heavy drinking period, are espoused. It feels appropriately to be included, thematically and as sign that solace in the wrong places happens too often.
Coupled together, these two albums tell the story of a year in a young man’s life. The first, angry at the world, the second how changes, self-inflicted and otherwise, can make you look inward and be none-too-pleased with what you see.
Loudon Wainwright III would go on to make many a messy mistake as the decades passed, openly relating them in song. There were also joys to be shared. The honesty of both sides of that begin here with this 2CD collection.
- Reviewed by Paul H Birch.
- Loudon Wainwright III/Album II is released via Cherry Red Records and is available here.
- Official Website
Disc One: Loudon Wainwright III
- School Days
- Hospital Lady
- Ode To A Pittsburgh
- Glad To See You’ve Got Religion
- Black Uncle Remus
- Four Is A Magic Number
- I Don’t Care
- Central Square Song
- Movies Are A Mother To Me
- Bruno’s Place
Disc Two: Album II
- Me And My Friend The Cat
- Motel Blues
- Nice Jewish Girls
- Be Careful There’s A Baby In The House
- Medley: I know I’m Unhappy/Suicide Song/Glenville Reel
- Saw Your Name In The Paper
- Samson And The Warden
- Plane Too
- Cook That Dinner Dora
- Old Friend
- Old Paint
- Winter Song
- Drinking Song (Bonus track)