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(Sovereign Artists 1958 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/20/2005)
Regular listeners to this series know there is a host of worthy up-and-coming singer-songwriters on the music scene, almost all operating below the radar of the major-label commercial-media music world. But in addition to the bumper crop of new talent, some of the veterans from the 1960s continue on, doing good new work. This week, we have a prime example. It's the new recording by Loudon Wainwright III, called Here Come the Choppers.
Loudon Wainwright's debut album appeared in 1970, and over the past 35 years, he has been a prolific songwriter, known for his witty and sometimes quirky lyrics. His one hit, from about 1972, was a novelty song Dead Skunk. But he has written and recorded hundreds of compositions since then, maintaining a core of loyal fans who look to him for songs that run from the hilarious to the poignant -- sometimes both at the same time. In recent years, Wainwright has also become something of a film actor, appearing in movies by directors Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton and Cameron Crowe.
This new 21st album from Wainwright has him in the company of some interesting and perhaps unexpected musical collaborators, most notably guitarist Bill Frisell, a jazz player who in recent times has been redefining the slide or bottleneck style of guitar. On bass is David Pilch also from the jazz world. Playing drums is Jim Keltner, who has been a ubiquitous studio player since the 1960s, appearing on many famous rock albums over the years. Rounding out the group is Greg Leisz, on steel guitar, mandolin and various other stringed instruments. So the instrumentation and sound is rather different than one would expect from such a long-time dyed-in-the-wool folkie. Some of it is atmospheric, and some a little rocky. There is little of the sound of a folk-singer strumming acoustic guitars. Frisell and the band members are provided with opportunities for solos on most of the songs, so as a result, many of the CD's tracks are longer than one would expect for a singer-songwriter album.
Nevertheless it all fits very well with Wainwright's new songs, ranging as they do from the whimsical to the reverent. A few deal with subjects Wainwright has addressed before, such as his family, and his general view of the world. As usual, his observations are often astute, and he has the ability to turn ordinary events into songs that can have a bittersweet quality. Two were inspired by his staying in the South for a while during the location shooting of films, and he writes that one each was inspired by New York City and his current home, Los Angeles.
The CD leads off with a song with the kind of whimsy for which Wainwright has been known. My Biggest Fan was inspired by a meeting in Australia with a 300 pound plus man who described himself as his "biggest fan." That's the kind of incident that a songwriter like Wainwright could scarcely pass up. The rocky arrangement nevertheless has a slightly atmospheric quality thanks to Frisell's guitar. <<>>
One the poignant side is No Sure Way, which recounts a subway ride that took him beneath the site of the World Trade Center. <<>>
God's Country is one of Wainwright's songs inspired by the time spent in the South, in this case in Lexington, Kentucky on the set of the Cameron Crowe film in which he was appearing. It comes across perhaps as a bit stereotyped, with the twangy steel guitar. But he gets his point across. <<>>
The other song set in the South, in this case Montgomery, Alabama, is Hank and Fred, the genesis of which was learning about the death of Fred Rogers, of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, and Wainwright finding himself going to the Hank WIlliams museum on that same day. <<>>
Wainwright has often written about his family, and this CD has two songs about his grandparents. Half Fist, is about Loudon Wainwright the First about whom not much was known. The accompaniment is a kind of spacey-old-time country blend with Wainwright on banjo and Frisell's sinewy electric guitar. <<>>
More upbeat is the story about Wainwright's grandmother, Nanny, who was apparently a feisty character. As usual, Wainwright has the ability to project a song, ostensibly about one person, into a something that in a way, has widespread relevance <<>>
The title track, Here Come the Choppers is set in Los Angeles, and was inspired by the atmosphere leading up the war in Iraq. <<>>
Also in the dysfunctional family mode is When You Leave, about a man who leaves his family, presumably divorces, and then finds himself ignored by his children. <<>>
Loudon Wainwright III's new CD Here Come the Choppers is a fine album of new songs by a real veteran artist. It puts him in the presence of contrasting musicians, most notably guitarist Bill Frisell, who give a rather different sonic twist to the songs, with almost a spacey quality even while occasionally getting rocky. This CD, however, is not Wainwright's best, nor is it his worst. And Wainwright is usually best in front of a live audience, as his live recordings will attest. But Here Come the Choppers has a lot of subtlety to it, both musically and lyrically. There's less of the funny, even goofy songs that Wainwright fans have come to expect. But on the other side, the material has much that will reveal itself with subsequent listenings.
Sonically, we'll give the CD about a "A minus." The mix is decent, but the despite the atmospheric sound of Bill Frisell's guitar and Greg Leisz' steel guitars, the recording seems to have a somewhat flat, two-dimensional quality. The dynamic range is reasonable, but some tunes sound too compressed for this kind of music.
With a 35 year recording career and 21 albums, Loudon Wainwright III remains a significant figure on the singer-songwriter scene, with his combination of wit and astuteness undiminshed.
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