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CD Reviews: Loudon Wainright III — Album I and Album II Reissues

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Loudon Wainwright III is a guy with a guitar, a quick wit, and a cutting lyrical sensibility. For more than 30 years he’s played the role of courtyard jester in the realm of folk-rock music, off in the sidelines with song titles like “Me And My Friend The Cat,” “I Know I’m Unhappy,” and “Glad To See You’ve Got Religion.”

Wainwright is probably better-known these days to the mass audience for his acting turns, with small parts in movies like Elizabethtown and Big Fish, and as divorced father Hal Karp in the great short-lived TV series Undeclared. He also appeared as the “singing surgeon” Captain Spaulding on several episodes of M*A*S*H. But he’s got a devoted cult audience as a songwriter, as a satirical bard who leeringly plucks at sacred cows. His children, Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright, have also become fairly well-known singers.

Now, his very first two albums have been re-released on CD by the Collector’s Choice label – his self-titled debut, also known as Album I (1970), and Album II (1971). While they aren’t as polished or acclaimed as Wainwright’s later work, they’re still interesting albums. They work as a snapshot of the folkie scene of the early 1970s, but Wainwright’s skewed satirical take on that movement is evident. Wainwright’s snarky humor with asides like “I rarely make love / I mostly get laid” seem aimed at deflating the hippie-era romanticism with a more jaded real-world attitude. He got tagged as “The New Dylan” by some critics but that’s just lazy critic-speak in action – Wainwright is more of a godfather of oddball folk-pop such as the Violent Femmes or The Flaming Lips, and rarely classified himself as “folk.” Each of the new reissues is backed up with informative, insightful liner notes by Richie Unterberger.

It’s stark acoustic music, mostly just Wainwright with a guitar, singing sometimes screaming away. He is clearly feeling his way through his style in these early albums. His high weedy whine of a voice might turn some people off. It’s sometimes frantic; the sound of a man barely holding it together, yet the slight wink in his tone and the chanting urgency of his lyrics can be addictive. A novelty tune like “Me And My Friend The Cat,” from Album II, bops along on a jangly riff from Wainwright’s guitar, but the very next song, “Motel Blues,” showcases the darker more cutting side of his writing. He sings about seducing a younger girl with canny couplets like “chronologically I know you’re young / but when you kissed me in the club you bit my tongue / I’ll write a song for you, I’ll put it on my next LP / Come up to my motel room, sleep with me!” Album II is incrementally better than Wainwright’s first disc, with deeper depth to both the lyrics and musical skill.

Wainwright would go on to develop his style, which spans from satire to sincere, and become an even more polished songwriter. With Album III,in 1972, he scored a minor hit with “Dead Skunk (In The Middle of the Road),” while later albums like So Damn Happy and History won critical acclaim. While novices to Wainwright might be better off looking at Album III or other later collections for a first taste, for fans of his distinctive wry tone, the re-release of these two earlier albums is a treasure trove worth seeking out.

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