After the success of son Rufus, and now daughter Martha getting such rave reviews, it’s nice to see that pops still has a little fire left in him. Loudon Wainwright has worn a lot of hats — actor, musician, husband, divorcee and father, but music was his first love and probably will be until the end, which is probably why his offspring have taken to it so successfully. Loudon, the son of a writer and editor, and descendant of American colonial upper class, began writing and singing folk songs in the 60’s. He landed his first album, simply called Album 1 in 1970 and has since gone on to marry and divorce Kate McGarrigle (having Rufus and Martha with her), starred in one season of M.A.S.H., and has even appeared as the mayor of Spectre in Tim Burton’s Big Fish. What people might not have expected from Loudon, even with his packed and varied résumé, is that he would still be making some of the best music of his career as he approached sixty years of age.
Here Come the Choppers, a title which could hint of pastiche considering his three episodes on the Korean War comedy series, is the herald of the return of a songwriting master, proving to the world from whence came his kids’ talent. With help from jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, pedal steel giant Greg Leisz, former Blood Sweat & Tears bassist David Piltch and hugely accomplished drummer Jim Keltner, Loudon Wainwright III has created an album worthy of airplay, kudos and great reviews across the board. Wainwright continues to write witty and urbane lyrics, all to catchy folk/country/rock tunes that can’t easily be pigeonholed.
“My Biggest Fan” is a long short story (oxymoron?) set to music about an obsessive fan, taken from true events. “No Sure Way” features wonderful lyrics which are a tribute to his home of New York City, including “Morpheus descending through a turnstile underground.” What made the album so memorable for me, however, is the song “Hank and Fred,” a recognition of influences as far disparate as Hank Williams and Fred Rogers. Although adding a little bit of humor, the song is serious, recalling the day he heard NPR’s Bob Edwards reporting the death of Mr. Rogers. It’s a little bit of “From Hank to Hendrix” by Neil Young, but also a little “Kurt” by Dan Bern.
Hank’s real name was Hiram, we all could feel his pain
And Fred McFeely Rogers knew how to talk to a train
How we mocked King Friday the Thirteenth on Saturday Night Live
But once I started crying, It was pretty hard to drive
Wainwright’s voice is still young sounding and nasally, prompting one to recognize where Rufus got his intonations. But whereas Rufus leans more to the Broadway side of theatricality, Loudon leans more toward the honky-tonk cowboy bar side. Even with the twang of the pedal steel and the kinship to Southern themes, Wainwright ironically throws in references to the Y, New York City and Los Angeles. Somehow it all seems to work, two-step rhythms with urban lyrics. “Make Your Mother Mad,” possibly a song to Martha, tells her its okay to like him, even though it will not please the mother:
Now one day you might marry
And you might have a child
A boy who is mischievous
Or a girl so sweet and mild
On a funny side note, Martha named her debut EP Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole, and when told it was about him, Loudon seemed shocked, saying “That song is about me?! I thought it was about President Bush. That girl is gonna be so grounded!” Make no mistake about the title of dad’s album however. It’s not a reference to his brief stint on M.A.S.H., but instead a reference to his annoyance at having police helicopters flying over his Los Angeles home, searchlights blazing, and pretty much bothering the entire neighborhood. Loudon throws in as many Hollywood in-jokes as Mike Doughty in “Screenwriter’s Blues,” yet with a little more humor.
Here Come the Choppers is a consistent and balanced record, with doses of tongue-in-cheek humor without becoming parody, countrified backgrounds without becoming rustic, urban (and urbane) without getting too uppity. On this record, Wainwright toes the line of a handful of different genres and proves that he’s still got it, despite being a “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole.”
The Elected- Me First
Bruce Cockburn- Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws
Neil Young- Harvest Moon