26 albums into his career Loudon Wainwright continues to demand attention from anyone with an ear for well crafted and well performed songs that draw from the history of recorded American folk music. Primarily known as a comic writer/performer (thanks to that Dead Skunk) and more recently as the progenitor of a small musical dynasty Wainwright has suffered to an extent from this perception despite the fact that at his best he is one of the finest singer/songwriters in the world today. He’s been on a roll since his Charlie Poole project (High Wide and Handsome) won the best traditional folk album Grammy in 2010 and Haven’t Got The Blues (Yet) maintains his recent quality as Wainwright plays some old time folk, some rock’n’roll and even a touch of klezmer. His tragicomic persona is reflected on the album cover which features Weary Willie (Emmet Kelly), a 1930’s Clown, sunk in a bubble bath, forlorn, with his clown outfit strewn around while the back cover is more mischievous with a photo shopped image of Sigmund Freud as Blind Lemon Jefferson ( a reference to Depression Blues on the album).
Wainwright belts out the opener, Brand New Dance, in full band rockabilly style with horn section included as he bemoans the workaday life. It’s skilfully played but there’s a feeling that he could knock out several such songs each day and while a radio friendly rock song might be useful for radio programmers for this reviewer such fodder has always been Wainwright’s weak spot. The clarinet led klezmer style of Spaced is a better fit as Wainwright rails against New York parking rules but again it’s an easy target and the song lacks a sense of passion. Song three, In A Hurry, therefore is a timely reminder of Wainwright’s excellence as he pares back and delivers a tremendous portrait of a panhandler observing the nine to fivers who race past him. Charged with emotion it harks back to the desolation captured on his debut album and is well worth the cost of admission alone. From here on in Wainwright does no wrong as he balances his humour, pathos and wicked observation in a variety of styles. The wit of The Morgue , Man & Dog and I’ll Be Killing You this Christmas is well balanced with the music complementing the lyrics while Harlan County is a bona fide old time country facsimile that laments the lack of premises to buy booze in a dry county.
Another bellwether mark of a Wainwright album is the family confessional song with past offerings at times stark and somewhat unsettling. Here he offers the upbeat and tender I Knew Your Mother (with backup vocals from daughter Martha) on a gingerly deft tribute to the late Kate McGarrigle that points directly to the fruit of their loins. On the other side of the coin Wainwright delivers a dense folk rock song (which recalls Richard Thompson’s work) on Looking At The Calendar where he muses on holidays and the least hurtful time for a couple to separate before plumping for April Fool’s Day (we did mention sardonic earlier on I think).
Overall on a LWIII scale this one rates 8/10. If you like Loudon you’ll love this. If not, then why not?
2 thoughts on “Loudon Wainwright III. Haven’t Got The Blues (Yet). Proper Records.”
You know, Paul, I have a soft spot for Loudon Wainwright’s music, too. I saw him in the early 1970s in that NYC bar that was upstairs at about 25th Street near Broadway, the place where John Lennon played several times with Elephant’s Memory. I also saw John Hammond Jr play there (I remember picking up his Camels when he dropped them as he was leaving the stage), and later met the mother of my children at a private party that happened close by, a party that was celebrating attendee Abby Hoffman. Fun times. Crazy times. We were all so damned young.
As I read your reviews, which (as you know) I like and respect very much, I am still a bit dissatisfied with the lack of precision in all of our communications as musicians, writers, critics, purveyors and people.
What is it, exactly (sorta), that we celebrate when we talk about our personal responses to music, and with Art generally?
Are we searching for poetry, and what is that exactly? Are we searching for melody? Are we searching for craft and technical skills? Are we looking for reinforcement of our political, social and spiritual beliefs? Are we looking to have our own points of view, and our own tastes, validated? Are we trying to peddle the music we like best, so that our musical choices will “trump” other tastes? Are we pushing music that reinforces our philosophical perspectives, so that we can “win” some tedious, or maybe some important, cultural or social battle? Are we looking for a soundtrack for the chaos and absurdity in our lives? Are we trying to make a living out of music and media, treating Art as a commodity like a person who works hard running their very own five-and-dime hardware store? What is it that we are all talking about, really, that we are dreaming about, as we chase various musical goals? Are we looking for little more than a pulse of rhythm to fill up the local disco or beer joint? Are we looking for a substance that feels good when we get get high? Are we trying to talk to God? Just what in the hell are we talking about when we pursue “music.”
It seems to me that before we can really discuss the music we like or dislike, it would be helpful to clearly and specifically define and publish the basis and standards we are using as we go merrily along, loudly judging the success of Artists who are taking real risks without understanding the bases upon which they will later be judged. Being subject to criticism without understanding “the standards” upon which Art is to judged is like asking an artist to enter a courtroom where the judge will make rulings about a defendant based solely of the judge’s whim, mood or cultural background, without the benefit of published laws or standards.
I am sick of people whose basis for criticism is little more than, “Well, that’s what I like.” I am especially tired of people whose loud defense of their own musical choices seems less like thinking and more like a battle-cry for their political and religious perspectives.
I have no answers, of course, but if we all understand that all of these questions are valid all of the time, and that all of our choices are subjective, then perhaps we can all have better conversations about music, conversations that feel more like camaraderie and less like parochial battles.
Hey Paul, nice review! Yes, Loudon’s doing well. The cover – is this all you know of Emmett Kelly? Not only was he a famous clown, he became long-time mascot for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and opened many a game out on the pitcher’s mound, doing his mime act (hilarious) before the games. Being that he was a mime, I was surprised to find in a bargain bin “Sing Along with Emmett Kelly”! It was a kid’s singalong album – and, ironically, the record was missing. Great cover though – he’s holding a head of raw cabbage, munching a leaf , deadpan.