Loudon Wainwright III: Social Studies
by George Graham
(Hannibal 1442 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/7/99)
Topical songs have a long history in music, especially in this country going back even to the Revolutionary War days. The 1960s were the peak period with Tom Lehrer, Tom Paxton and the late Phil Ochs serving up songs about the news of the day. Though topical songwriters do persist into the late 1990s, with Paxton still active and groups like the Foremen setting politics, mores and general state of affairs into musical satire, such artists are far less visible than they used to be, and for all practical purposes extinct from the pop charts.
This week we have a new collection of topical songs by a veteran folkie who has been known for his lyrical cleverness and frequently-exercised sense of humor, Loudon Wainwright III. His new CD is called Social Studies.
Wainwright's closest brush with stardom came in 1972 when his novelty song Dead Skunk unexpectedly became a hit. But since his debut LP in 1970, Wainwright has been releasing a steady stream of recordings that are the work of a genuine original -- a singer-songwriter and folkie who can border on the silly one minute and show devastatingly sharp insight the next. Most of his songs over the years have been personal in one way or another. His marriage, divorce and children have found their way into his songs, in a context that usually gives larger meaning to his own experience and can sometimes be quite funny in the process. But he occasionally looks at bigger issues.
Social Studies is indeed a collection, an anthology, of songs Wainwright wrote over the course of ten years, most of them as musical commentaries for National Public Radio's Morning Edition.
Wainwright writes in his CD notes that he first started writing "songs to order about other people and things" in 1975 when he made a couple of acting appearances as a singing doctor on the M*A*S*H TV show and was asked to write a song for role. Some years ago, Loudon's sister Teddy Wainwright came up with the idea of having her brother become a musical commentator on NPR, and approached the Public Radio network. The songs, in their original form were performed with just vocal and guitar. For their incarnation on this CD, they were recorded with a small and tasteful band, including several people with whom he has recorded in the past, including multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Chaim Tennenbaum, bassist Greg Cohen, along with guitarist David Mansfield, drummer Richard Crooks and jazz guitar notable John Scofield.
Because this assemblage of songs spans most of the past decade, there is susceptibility to the occupational hazard of topical songwriters: getting out of date. And while most people can still well remember the details of the news events that inspired these songs, my reaction to many of these ballads of the Sleazy Nineties is that they were things I would rather forget, from Tonya Harding to O.J. Simpson to the White House sex scandal. But there are also some more thoughtful pieces including three touching on the subject of war and peace, in the classic Sixties topical songwriting tradition.
This generous 15-song CD begins with What Gives, inspired by the posthumous electronic reunion of John Lennon with the rest of the Beatles on the song Free as a Bird. Wainwright uses that as a vehicle to consider the marketability of dead entertainers. <<>>
Also from the annals of the media-feeding-frenzy world is the story of ice skater Tonya Harding called Tonya's Twirls. Unlike most of the rest of this album, this is one a topical song tied too much to a single forgettable event, and thus its relevance is likely to fade quickly with time, if it hasn't already started doing so. <<>>
On the other hand, Wainwright writes several of those great songs that start with a news event and but go on to make a statement that will outlive the headline. One is Carmine Street which was inspired by the Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King beating. The song goes straight to the heart of the matter. <<>>
One of the more light-hearted songs is New Street People, which addresses the consequences of smoke-free buildings. <<>>
Perhaps the album's most timely song in 1999 is Y2K, which gets down and funky as it considers the impending computer glitch that is becoming a national obsession. <<>>
Also in the less-serious vein is Number One a country-styled ditty about the "1-900" services hawked on late night commercial television. <<>>
Two very different songs about Bill Clinton are placed consecutively on the CD. Inaugural Blues was written on the occasion of the swearing in of the first Baby Boomer President, and the generational shift and hope that represented. <<>> While the following track called Our Boy Bill considers the scandals that followed. <<>>
There are three songs inspired by recent wars. Christmas Morning was written at the start of war with Iraq, contrasting the holiday spirit with launch of a war. <<>> The song Bad Man was written about Saddam Hussein and Manuel Noriega, and the wars against those dictators. It could easily have been written for the recent Yugoslav campaign. <<>>
The album ends with perhaps its most poignant song, Pretty Good Day, which was written while Wainwright was living in London, which he observed was not that far from Sarajevo, and the Bosnian war. <<>>
Loudon Wainwright has from time to time included some songs that approached being about news events on his past recordings. Social Studies is his first full album dedicated to topical songs, most written for his musical commentary spots on National Public Radio. As usual, Wainwright can be both funny and keenly observant. These tastefully performed compositions run the gamut from touching songs about the pain of war, to the lunacy of the show-biz-dominated media world. As with topical songs of the past, there is a danger that the material will become dated, and already there are a couple that provide reminders of stories we're glad have passed. But on most of the record, Wainwright is able to make larger observations that transcend the immediate headline.
In terms of sonic presentation, the album is quite good. The instrumentation is almost all acoustic and is recorded well. There are a few audio effects here and there to add some spice or in some cases humor, but the restraint by veteran producer Joe Boyd, known for his work with the early Fairport Convention LPs, and engineer-coproducer John Wood is greatly appreciated.
Topical songs these days are in no danger of going very far up the charts, given the state of the commercial media, but it is a long and hallowed artform. Social Studies shows Loudon Wainwright to be among its best practitioners these days.
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