LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III
Not having heard many of Loudon’s post-70s albums, I can’t give out a full overview. But I don’t like his 70s catalog very much at all. There are scattered good tracks, and the debut is very impressive. But I can’t name one album truly worth acquiring after that one. You’re probably better off hearing a compilation, as the albums are so slight and unassuming anyway.
Loudon Wainwright III *
LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III (1970)
This debut album of odd little folk songs has a young Loudon armed with only his acoustic guitar and his very strange but also extremely expressive voice. And as far as these things go (acoustic folk albums by young New Yorkers), this is pretty damn impressive. And also very unique. It’s hard to describe Loudon’s style here – he mixes a little bit of Dylan, a good amount of Joni Mitchell, a nice helping of acoustic Neil Young…but he really sounds like none of those people. His actual personality is a bit more in your face, and he doesn’t really hide behind a lot of florid imagery or push any sort of “minstrel poet” persona. His songs are also way lighter and goofier, which would eventually become (in my opinion) a big problem. But this album balances the wit with the poetry quite well, and more importantly, it’s got a lot of great material. The first half of the album is fantastic – every song is performed with tons of passion and the lyrics just cut hard. There’s also a good amount of variety (more in an emotional/lyrical than melodic sense), and each song leaves a strong impression. The opener “School Days” is immediately striking in its intimacy and conversational tone. “Hospital Lady” is a sad narrative song. “Glad To See You’ve Got Religion” is a biting critique of a recently converted friend, though Loudon keeps his opinions ambiguous and the lyric ends up super layered. Later in the album. “Four Is A Magic Number” chugs along with Dylan-ish intensity. I also love the album closer, “Bruno’s Place.” There’s a little run of tunes toward the end that don’t quite connect, and there’s definitely a ceiling of enjoyment I get from this sort of record…but this is still a high quality acoustic folk album.
ALBUM II (1971)
This album is HORRIBLE! I’m really not sure what happened between Loudon’s first two records, but his singing, playing, and writing has suddenly gotten depressingly dire. I’m hoping these were just leftovers from the first sessions, because this is systematically worse than the debut. We’re still dealing with solo acoustic songs, without one instant of additional instrumentation. But Loudon has initiated a major change to his song-writing this time around: about half of these tunes are what one might label a “novelty” or “comedy” song. They aren’t straight comedy tunes, but they are definitely based around one comedic (usually darkly comedic) idea, and then all of the phrases are witty rhymes based around that idea. Loudon isn’t Tom Waits though, and the comedy doesn’t quite merge with the pathos to create anything approaching profundity. Instead, the songs just sound goofy and pointless. The melodies are also non-existent on this record – so we’ve got generic folk and blues progressions with shtick-y lyrics and boring melodies. Things are also generally more musically subdued here, even if the lyrics are often way more jokey than before. I prefer an upbeat Loudon. There isn’t much in the vein of acoustic ‘rockers’ like “Uptown” or “Bruno’s Place.” “Motel Blues” is the most famous song, but I find it completely dull. “Nice Jewish Girls” is one of the novelty numbers, as you might guess from the title. It’s dated and stupid. “Plane, Too” is a lyric that reaches for poetry in the mundane, as Loudon just describes a bunch of things on an airplane. That “everyday observation” writing style is all over the album. One of the songs is admittedly quite funny: “Be Careful There’s A Baby In The House,” a warning to parents to watch out for their scheming cribbed toddlers. A lot of this sounds like a college kid improvising some tunes to make his friends laugh at a coffee shop (the “suicide” medley in particular). And a lot of it sounds like boring crap. Yuck!
ALBUM III (1972)
Loudon goes electric! With pretty mixed results, unfortunately. The biggest problem is that the album is so light and unassuming, it barely registers as music to my ears. You know when stand-up comics with musical talent will make up little songs as comedic bits? The melodies and changes are usually stupidly simple to support the real idea – the joke – and that’s what’s going on here. This is still way better and more entertaining than the previous platter – it employs a snooze-proof formula that switches off between the acoustic folk songs and the full-band folk rock songs. And the band sounds great on here – particularly on my two favorite tracks, rockers “East Indian Princess” and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” Those songs have a lot of energy and some real MUSCLE in the rhythm section and guitar tones. Surprisingly, Loudon’s voice fits the rock songs incredibly well, almost better than it does the folk songs. Lyrically, he continues to devolve into an slice-of-life observational folk-comedian. This time we even get a (forgettable) sex parable from the perspective of a bumble bee. The opener was his biggest ever hit – “Dead Skunk.” It was clearly a hit due to being so stupid you can’t stop thinking about it. The chorus lyric consists entirely of: “Dead Skunk In The Middle of The Road, Stinkin’ to High Heaven.” I’m not sure if I’m missing some sort of Vietnam metaphor in that song or something – but as far as I can tell, it’s just simply a song about roadkill. I guess every subject can be turned into a song. It doesn’t help that the lyrics are coupled with the most rote melody and arrangement imaginable. Most of the songs on here just don’t stick – they’re sometimes pleasant, and Loudon’s personality is always endearing…but he’s almost totally abandoned the powerful style of his debut in favor of something approaching a children’s performer. In addition to the two songs I mentioned above, I’m also quite partial to closer “Say That You Love Me.” But this is a mediocre album in total.
ATTEMPTED MUSTACHE (1973)
I’ve never heard an album self-destruct as quickly as does Loudon’s fourth. Here’s how it goes down. We open with what is almost without question the best song of the man’s career: “The Swimming Song.” It’s a genius 2.5 minute folk-pop tune – the playing is great, Loudon sounds charming and relaxed, the lyrics are fantastic and memorable and find a perfect balance between most of Loudon’s trademarks (comedy, autobiography, poetry, outsider-ism, social commentary, complaining…). It’s a should-be classic – both witty and moving, with a lot of fragile charm. Song two is fun but also an enormous step down: “A.M. World,” a rag-timey cynical roots-rocker about fame. This is Randy Newman/Ray Davies territory, but where peak-era Randy and Ray would infuse such a mean-spirited tune with irony and/or heart and certainly a modicum of sadness, Loudon’s song has few discernible layers and just sounds crass. It also sports a generic hook and rote melody, though the band sounds great (as they do, when they appear, throughout this record). You see: the novelty song genre can be used to create powerful 3-dimensional pieces (witness something like Newman’s “Political Science”). Loudon too often misses the dimensionality, and ends up with fluffy slight material. Moving on…song three is the total throwaway solo-acoustic (with some FX adornments) “Bell Bottom Pants,” sung from the POV of someone who doesn’t understand the new fashion craze. This is as close as you can get to writing a song with absolutely no content or melody. Loudon sounds like he thinks it’s a funny lyric – basically a hippie versus soldier sketch – but it’s so underwritten that it’s hard to get from it anything beyond a silly joke with some slight social commentary. Then comes the Trout Mask Replica tribute (kidding) – a minute long acapella toss-off called “Liza,” about how Loudon went to school with a humble Liza Minelli when they were kids and now she’s got the star-bug. It’s not just underwritten – it’s a non-song. THEN comes a live track (in the middle of a studio album – always a liability) called “I Am The Way,” an anti-religion comedy number that positions Jesus as just another power-hungry corrupt preacher. The audience makes the song work way better than if it was just a studio recording – I’m sure Loudon is quite funny in performance and the crowd is like a laugh track on a sitcom. So to summarize – we’ve gone from layered genius folk to one-dimensional goofy roots-rock to no-dimensional solo acoustic novelty song to acapella non-song sketch to live musical stand-up comedy bit. KABLOOM! The rest of the album is actually pretty consisetnt but mostly unremarkable. There’s a mediocre 6 minutes hookless narrative fantasy parable, 3 enjoyable but slight bluesy roots rockers (“Nocturnal Stumblebutt” has some great band interplay), and some softer numbers including the first in a series of songs LITERALLY about Loudon’s kids (“Dilated To Meet You”). This whole album is so slight it’s barely there…but don’t miss out on “The Swimming Song!”
It’s amazing how much Loudon has changed since his impressive debut. His voice has turned deeper and more commanding (but also more normal), his songs fluffier and nastier (and way more casual in tone) – heck, even compaing album covers shows a young weasly punk turning quickly into a bearded mature 70s dude. This album presents a studio recorded A side followed by a live B side of all new material. As I said regarding the live cut on the previous record, Loudon’s adopted songwriting style REALLY benefits from hearing an audience laugh at the jokes and guffaw at the nasty lines. So the live side is much better here, and Loudon remains an engaging performer throughout that run of tunes. The songs themselves are basically just “bits” – they mostly lack hooks and/or decent melodies, mainly just serving a conduit for Loudon’s witticisms. They’re all generic strummy acoustic background beds for the lyrics – save for the only already released song, ‘Old Friend,” which works as a real composition. But Loudon’s vocal performances are quite nice, and the audience seems to be eating it up, which makes for a fun listen. I’m guessing there was a physical component to many of these lyrics, as laughter erupts in odd places and the mics occasionally pick out Loudon performing some obscure actions. They even left in an audience member’s sneezing fit, followed by a mock-annoyed Loudon going “alright alright gezeundteit!” Most of the songs on both sides of this record deal with Loudon’s messy breakup with his wife, and I assume that’s why he’s crying on the cover. But this ain’t no “Blood On The Tracks.” More like “Corn On The Cob.” The most interesting pair of live cuts are “The Untitled” and “Rufus Is a Tit Man.” The former is a comedy song about gay men sung in a phony British accent with a more Celtic-folk sounding melody than usual for Loudon. And the latter describes the infant Rufus Wainwright’s breast-feeding predilection (and Loudon’s subsequent jealousy over his son’s tit-sucking advantage). Both songs intrgue me mostly because of grown-up Rufus’ much publicized homosexuality – I can only imagine what the son thinks of these tunes! The studio side of this record is mostly boring. The production is too glossy, and Loudon sounds disinterested. There are some full band cuts and some low key relationship songs, but only opener “Sweet Nothings” left an impression on me. It’s a very well-played funky rocker, very 70s-session-esque, but the hook is good and Loudon’s voice works great on the tune (and the chorus even employs some vocal doubling…that kinda pop production will be elaborated upon during the next two albums). The relationship songs are sad and honest, but also very dull. Overall, this is another slight and forgettable record from Loudon, without any great central song(s) to lift it out of mediocre-land.
T SHIRT (1976)
This one of two “full band” rock albums Loudon cut for Arista in the late 70s before a
long break. It shows Loudon’s writing reaching a new low in pointlessness – and not one of the songs sticks in my memory. The band sounds very professional, but this sort of pop production doesn’t serve Loudon that well. Sometimes he comes off like, say, Jimmy Buffet: not-quite-smart-enough novelty songs languishing in a coked up 70s production gloss. The album opens with a TERRIBLE song: “Bicentennial,” which celebrate the US’ 200th birthday with a hint of sarcasm (witness the line about Jack Ruby). But that hint isn’t quite strong enough for me – the song never really lets the satire through – and the bouncy musical accompaniment is corny and doesn’t play as ironic – just dumb. Actually, most of side A is a wash: “Summer’s Almost Over” manages to achieve a bit of a whimsical-nostalgia atmosphere, but it’s a totally generic melody. “At Both Ends” has some cool groove-based arrangement ideas but lacks a good hook and runs out of steam a minute in. “Wine With Dinner” is a stupid drinking song. Side B is a big step up – there’s a horn-adorned ode to a dog, a fun blues song with a great vocal, a “talkin” blues folk song about NYC sung in a Dylan voice (well let’s say Woody Guthrie to be fair)…but the album’s best song is probably “Prince Hal’s Dirge,” a heavier theatrical number about the necessity to kick childish substance-laden habits and GROW UP! There’s some actual atmosphere on that one, and the big dramatic arrangement serves as a proper ironic counterpoint to the lyric (without sounding too dumb and novelty-ish like on “Bicentennial”). However, not even that song has enough power to make this anything but an inessential nothing of an album.
FINAL EXAM (1978)
A continuation of the T-SHIRT aesthetic and modus-operandi, but this one goes even further into commercial 70s production-land. There are now back-up vocals all over the place! Not tastefully conceived Beach Boys/ELO back-up vocals…Vegas-y joke ones. And the songs, believe it or not, have gotten even MORE pointless! Take the opener, the title track, which is a sister-song to “Summer’s Almost Over.” It’s lyrics speak of studying well for your final exams so that you don’t have to go to summer school or be a failure. A fine subject for a song…if the song turned around and SAID something unique about that process. Or provided a bit of social commentary. Or used the idea of a final exam as a metaphor for something greater. Loudon just seems to think it’s enough to sing about everyday life with a little bit of sarcasm. At one point he screams “Cheat Like They Do At West-Point!” – but it’s just a random jokey aside, not a well-crafted idea in a well-crafted lyric. It doesn’t help that the production on that song is WAY over-done – the backup singers, the harmonized guitars, the forced vocal performance. The chorus hook is dreadful – Loudon really is totally useless when it comes to smart pop hooks. I can’t tell if the whole thing is a big joke (as it obviously is on some of these other songs). Before I continue, let me just say that Loudon’s basic style at this point is performed ten times better and with way more class and poetry and laughs by…RANDY FUCKING NEWMAN. OK…there’s a lame song about golf, an un-love song using weather metaphors, “Mr. Guilty” is a generic mean-comedy song sung from the perspective of an abusive male lover, (might I mention Randy Newman’s similar and way better “Guilty”)? “Heaven and Mud” is a goofy country spoof about substance abuse…these are all forgettable. But wait! There are some decent songs! My favorite is “The Heckler,” which has a bit of an Ian Hunter vibe. Great vocal performance on that one. I also like the sad and sweet acoustic folk of “Pretty Little Martha,” an ode to Loudon’s daughter from whom he’s been estranged (due to the divorce I’m assuming). Then there’s “Fear Of Flying,” which isn’t much of a song but has a genuinely funny set of lyrics (it gets quite morbid, which I appreciate). FINALLY, the album closer “Watch Me Rock, I’m Over Thirty” uses an appropriately “bad” musical backing to self-mock Loudon’s attempt at rocking out past his youthful prime. It’s a novelty song pure and simple – and it’s sort of funny, especially the vocal performance. Loudon took a long break after this album, and returned in the 80s with a bunch of acoustic-oriented albums produced with the great Richard Thompson. I haven’t heard them, but I’m only going to choose one of his late-period records to listen to. I’m just not a big fan, and I feel comfortable jumping ship at this generally-agreed-upon nadir.
This late-period Loudon album is from the early 90s and has a high reputation as being one of his best and most “serious” records. My one listen revealed to me a number of things: Loudon hasn’t changed all that much since the 70s, though his voice is now incredibly normal and pleasant (as opposed to that earlier odd and expressive delivery). But this album is also far more sad and directly autobiographical than any of the 70s ones (there are very few cuts that could even be considered novelty). There are some incredibly moving lyrics on here – but this album is ALL lyrics. There isn’t one original melody on here, and basically no hooks. It’s very boring musically, but fairly riveting lyrically as Loudon deals mostly with family issues and grief and loss. But I can’t imagine wanting to listen to it again – it’s like reading someone’s diary rather than listening to actual songs. Loudon’s lyric writing has gotten extremely specific – there’s very little figurative language on here. The most “novelty” song is a Bob Dylan tribute, done in that talkin’ blues style so beloved of early Bob. It’s a funny “song,” but also so literal it’s hard to take as more than just a goof (such as when Loudon directly rips on “Self-Portrait”). This album has more pathos than all of Loudon’s 70s albums combined – I just wish it had some memorable tunes.