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Self-consciously serious authors love to cite Czeslaw Milosz’s remark that “when a writer is born into a family, it’s the end of that family”. So what happens when everyone who gathers for Thanksgiving is a singer-songwriter? In the case of the Wainwright clan, you turn internecine agonies into a cottage industry.
In spite of an idiosyncratic career now into its fourth decade, Loudon Wainwright III, the sometimes caustic patriarch, has been overshadowed lately by his offspring. Rufus and Martha, his children with Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle, each draw rave reviews for their more lushly emotional material. Both have stung their father in song, though all appear to be friendly again. Artistic rivalries are sharpest when they begin at home, but the Wainwrights know this soap-opera bitchiness is mutually beneficial – and marketable. The younger part of this packed crowd has probably come to see who’s the daddy.
Loudon is supported by Lucy Wainwright Roche, his daughter with another singer, Suzzy Roche. At the end of her set – which is surprisingly demure, given half her DNA, and lacking any rancour – she mentions that her CD is available in the foyer, then quips: “And I’ll be selling family secrets also.” Having previously ducked out of the firm as a schoolteacher, this sweet-voiced soul is quickly learning the ropes.
Pops revels in having started it all. “I’ve got a lot of family songs for you, so watch out,” he smirks, but begins with a dose of cheerfully bleak baby-boomer blues. The clock is ticking on Wainwright’s generation, and “120 doesn’t seem that old” as he gurns gamely in the face of the Grim Reaper. During “Doin’ the Math”, a fresh take on tempus fugit, he waggles his tongue with relish every time he calculates that terminal equation – “no more addition now, it’s all subtraction”. He looks like a mutt who has done something he oughtn’t.
But this cranky dog has years in him yet. The new songs, co-written with producer Joe Henry, come from an album called Strange Weirdos, which forms the soundtrack to Knocked Up, the next movie comedy from Judd Apatow, the director of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and a big Loudon fan. As wry as Randy Newman and namedropping Hollywood insiders, Grey In LA might be an early bet for an Oscar nomination. Resigned to life being one huge traffic jam, it punctures the city’s eternally blue-skies thinking. However, if that’s too downbeat for the Academy, the soppier but still substantial title track – about oddballs falling in love – is a good alternative.
When he isn’t being sarcastic or just plain silly, Wainwright sings like a gutsier James Taylor. Otherwise, showy confessions make you wonder about his sincerity. Yet there is no mistaking his honesty on older songs concerning his parents. “A Father and a Son” is a clear-eyed memoir (“I don’t know about this Oedipal stuff/ But when we were together it was always rough”), while the elegiac “White Winos” and the movingly vulnerable “Homeless” suggest he was a real mommy’s boy. It is when he mugs through his own jokes, and one particularly cloying birthday routine for a five-year-old Martha, that you sympathise with his kids.
Lucy duets with him on several numbers, including the country tearjerker “At the End of a Long Lonely Day” – a pleasant finale, though not a patch on Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Loudon is still in with a shout of being his family’s most amusing storyteller, but its most compelling performer? He is past that.
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