wed 14/11/2018

CD: Loudon Wainwright III - Years in the Making | reviews, news & interviews

CD: Loudon Wainwright III - Years in the Making

CD: Loudon Wainwright III - Years in the Making

Intimate treasures from a long career in song

Some of the fun-filled art that graces this lively compilation

For nearly half a century, Loudon Wainwright III has trodden a path on the margins of American popular music. He is as much a wry and sometimes puerile humourist as he is the writer of touching songs about love. This new collection of unreleased material provides both an entry point for those unfamiliar with his work and a treasure trove for devotees.

There is material recorded in the studio, on his laptop and at concerts – even a bootleg from a fan. The two CDs come with a nicely designed booklet with mementoes and drawings, all of which testify to the child-like qualities that provide Wainwright with his particular appeal.

Wainwright cites the pianist and comedian Tom Lehrer as a major influence – and the anarchic irony of his master has left its traces. You have to be in the mood to enjoy this type of humour, and while his live audiences laugh with almost embarrassing adulation, this doesn't always translate as well to the more private experience of a CD. The more sentimental songs work better in this context. There is an emotional honesty and intelligence at work here – not least in songs such as “Your Mother and I” and “Out of This World”, or a brilliant cover of Richard Thompson’s “Down Where the Drunkards Roll” that are deeply touching: Wainwright swings with ease from heartbreaking vulnerability to sharpness and irony.

He also has a great feel for folk, blues and bluegrass – with several foot-stomping a capella performances, as well as rollicking moments like the very danceable version of “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms”. Not least because most of the rich pickings in the collection come from informal gatherings or live events, there is a freshness and spontaneity to the music that's most appealing: the people here, often old intimates of Wainwright's, such as multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield and banjo-player Chaim Tannenbaum, enjoy making music together, and it shows. This is also something of a family album, not surprising given Wainwright’s marriage to Kate McGarrigle, their children Rufus and Martha, and the later connections with the Roches. There is even a touching Happy Birthday along with a song from the children from both marriages, with harmony singing learned, as it were, at the breast.

There are many ways to let an audience into one’s intimate world: some – Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Bon Iver spring to mind - do it obliquely with poetry and allusion, and others just open the doors to their heart. Loudon Wainwright III belongs to the latter category: the bare-naked authenticity can feel at times a little excessive, but at his best, he’s a brilliant original who deserves the cult following he's steadily built up over the years.

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