That’s right, babies, Martha and Rufus have a dad. (In fact, Rufus was a tit man).
There are many stellar records in Loudon Wainwright‘s career, most are (sadly) radio-proof cult items among the converted. But he’s still hitting the mark as he enters his fifth decade of recording and performing; his energy and wit remain sharp and incisive as ever.
Here’s something I wrote eleven years ago for Consumable Online, when Little Ship came out. Not much has changed since then; new songs, same skill.
Sometimes I wish every record came with a lyric sheet, because many people flat out mumble and it would be nice to know what they are really singing. Then there are times when I’m glad they don’t, because it makes me listen to the words as they’re being sung and spoken. I’d never turn to the last page of a novel to see the ending, and I like to savor the words of a good song in much the same way. Which is just my longwinded way of saying that master songwriter and storyteller Loudon Wainwright III makes me laugh, sing along, think and get choked up along with him, and it’s better when I don’t know what’s coming next. Like the whistling solo on the island flavored title track. Oops…..
As a vocalist, Wainwright has gotten much better over the years. His phrasing on delicate songs like “Four Mirrors” and “Primrose Hill” is just one example of the difference between a good singer and a pedestrian vocalist. Radio will no doubt try to feature louder, uptempo songs like “Mr. Ambivalent” or “I Can’t Stand Myself”, and they are very good songs. But where his louder, faster songs tend to be nudge and wink stories, it’s his softer, slower moments that let him weave his magic better. Besides the poignant “Primrose Hill”, other strong moments include “The Birthday Present II” and Shawn Colvin’s duet vocal on “Our Own War”.
Wainwright is a certified wise ass and one of the best live performers you will ever see. At his shows, crowds laugh uproariously and sing along in unison, but when he pulls out one of his pensive, dysfunctional family themed gems (and he has a truckload), the crowd is quiet with equal parts interest and awe. It’s hard to recapture those two polarities on a studio record, but alongside the cock-strut of “Breakfast In Bed” you have a song like “OGM” (outgoing message), where Loudon picks a lone guitar as he sings. It’s a beautiful but sad song, the low self esteem yin to the unbridled frustration yang of The Replacements’ “Answering Machine”.
Maybe my favorite moment is the hysterical “Being A Dad”. As usual, the record is littered with great lyrics, but this one is wall-to-wall great (“it’s as hard as it looks/you gotta read ’em dumb books/and you end up despising Walt Disney”). The over-the-top performance comes complete with chanting chorus, and then right when he has you laughing your ass off, he slips in the somber, final couplet (“Being a Dad can make you feel sad / Like you’re the insignificant other / Yeah right from the start they break your heart / In the end every kid wants his mother…”)
For a funny guy, it’s obvious that he has had family issues wear some of the tread off his tires over the years, but as usual, his catharsis is our gain. Loudon fans will be thrilled, and those willing to sit and give this an hour of their time to Little Ship will realize why those in the know stopped talking about “Dead Skunk” a long time ago.