There are some people who, if they weren’t so genuinely nice, you’d be hard pressed not to hate. Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and their extended family of exceptionally talented musicians and artists, have been amazing audiences around the world with their wonderful music and winning hearts with the atmosphere generated by their stage shows. One reviewer, normally a man I regarded as being somewhat of a cynic from having covered popular music for years, literally gushed about how attending one of their performances was like being invited to sit around the fire in the family parlour.
That was almost 30 years ago, and a second generation of the family has begun taking the world by a storm. Kate’s marriage to Loudon Wainwright ended in divorce, although he still occasionally plays with the band, but not before the couple had two children. Rufus and Martha Wainwright have not only inherited the family musical talent, but also the other qualities that endeared their mother and aunt to tens of thousands of people. While Rufus has had a successful solo career for a number of years now, Martha stayed in the background supporting both the family band and her brother with her vocal harmonies.
All that changed a couple of years back when she released her first CD and served notice that she, too, could take centre stage. Her second disc, I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too is being released June 10th, 2008, by Rounder Record’s Zoe label. Martha is joined on the 14 tracks, 12 of which are originals, by not only her extended clan, but also guest appearances by Garth Hudson, Pete Townshend, and Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan fame).
From the provocative title to the line up of performers and the pedigree of the headliner, I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too has all the hallmarks of an exciting disc waiting to happen. While there is no denying Martha Wainwright’s talent as both a vocalist and a songwriter, there are times on this disc when you wish somebody had exercised a little restraint when it came to production values and arrangements. On some songs the balance was maintained, but on others it felt like a “use everything plus the kitchen sink” approach was being taken. A little too much of everything is worse than nothing at all.
Martha Wainwright has one of those glorious voices that combines the torch song abilities of a cabaret singer, the homespun country feel of Iris Dement, with the honesty and integrity of Lotte Lenya. Range, passion, and sincerity have been wrapped up in one amazing package – the voice of a chanteuse. Unfortunately, this is not a commodity that has a place in the current pop pantheon in North America. In an era where squeaky voiced little girls or strident voiced divas are the norm, sultry, subtle-voiced integrity is neither much in demand or one record companies seem to know what to do with.
That Ms. Wainwright composed 12 of the 14 tracks on this disc would be itself enough to distinguish her from the rest of the pack. When that’s coupled with the fact that the majority of the lyrics are intelligent and replete with genuine emotion instead of the usual manipulative sentiment being foisted on audiences these days, it makes her talent all the more unique. All of this makes me wish she had been given a better forum to display it in than the frame that’s been hung around her with I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too.
I’m of the opinion that you shouldn’t dim a shining light’s glow by surrounding it with mirrors and glitter that divert the eye from the purity of the source. On more than one occasion the production values on this disc have done exactly this with both Martha’s voice and the lyrical content of her songs. Instead of the focus being on her voice and her songs, we are distracted by swelling strings and keyboard generated sounds. What makes this even more disappointing is the tantalizing glimpses we’re given of just how good she can sound.
The title track, which is also the opening track of the disc, is wonderful. Her lyrics are wise and wounded and delivered with a passion that only comes from sitting up all night worrying a subject to death. The “other” woman has never been seen in so sympathetic and real a light before. Just because she fell in love with a married man doesn’t mean that she’s a bad person; she’s got feelings, too. There’s no self-pity, whining, or pleading; just a stating of honest passion redolent with feelings of regret and tinges of betrayal.
You couldn’t ask for a more obvious contrast than track two on the disc, “You Cheated Me.” There’s a phrase in Yiddish that roughly translates into English as “a little too much of everything,” and that’s the case with this song. It feels like they kept adding layers of sound to the song and didn’t know when to stop. It got to the point where listening to the song became a frustrating experience as I was far too distracted by the constant demands placed on my ears, by what seemed to be extraneous noise, to pay attention to the lyrics.
I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too makes it obvious that Martha Wainwright is an extraordinary talent with an incredible voice and a wonderful ear for writing lyrics. Unfortunately, it’s obvious nobody is sure what to do with this talent. Instead of letting her be the focal point of each song, there are far too many occasions when she is buried beneath a wash of sound. The occasional flashes that are allowed to shine through make this all the more frustrating an experience.