CD Review of Recovery by Loudon Wainwright III
Recommended if you like
John Prine, John Hiatt,
Randy Newman
Label
Yep Roc
Loudon Wainwright III:
Recovery

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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L
ike Randy Newman, Loudon Wainwright III was born an old man in a young man’s skin, and coupled his gift for literate wit with a caustic sense of humor and a frequently jaundiced outlook to create some of the most critically beloved (and, with the exception of one mostly regrettable novelty hit, commercially slept on) folk/pop/rock of the last 40 years – and now, also like Newman, he’s taking a moment to regroup by casting some of his oldest songs in a new light.

Unlike Newman, however, Wainwright has maintained an impressively prolific output over the last half of his career, continuing to release new albums at a fairly predictable clip every two or three years. (His most recent outing, the “Knocked Up” soundtrack album Strange Weirdos, was released just last May.) Where Newman’s Songbook Vol. 1 seemed like a somewhat cynical attempt to bridge the gap between new releases, Wainwright’s trip down memory lane – the aptly titled Recovery – feels like a deep breath. Happily for listeners, it’s frequently just as refreshing.

Wainwright’s early records – the descriptively titled Album I, Album II, and yes, you guessed it, Album III – were well-received critically, but they were far from perfect. For one thing, the aesthetic of the day (not to mention Wainwright’s production budgets) dictated an extremely minimalistic approach, frequently limiting accompaniment to little more than an acoustic guitar; for another, young Loudon had a singing voice that could be politely described as extremely reedy, and that, along with his propensity for writing songs that called for a certain amount of loud, drawn-out howling, could sometimes make for a listening experience that fell between “acquired taste” and “challenging.”

Along the way, however, Wainwright not only grew into his voice, he accumulated the sort of life experience necessary to earn the streak of casual misanthropy that has always run through his songs. Joe Henry, who produced Recovery and knows a thing or two about songwriting, writes in the booklet that “there were songs I suggested out of pure devotion to them, and because I wanted somehow to reach into the frame and be a part of extending their range” – and damn if that isn’t exactly what he ends up doing here, thanks to a crack session band that includes guitarist Greg Leisz and keyboard player Patrick Warren, not to mention Wainwright himself.

Loudon Wainwright III

From an artistic standpoint, the years have been kind to Wainwright. A track like “Motel Blues,” for instance, which sounded like a sneering jab at rock stars desperately seeking groupies in its original incarnation, here reflects the growing loneliness and desperation of an artist who’s been shacking up three doors down from the ice machine for several decades, and only wants a few hours of friction to take his mind off the road. We’re still talking about the guy who hollered “I wish I was a lesbian and not a hetero” in 1995’s “IWIWAL,” then muttered “I dare Casey Kasem to play this” in the bridge, so perhaps it would be out of line to call what he brings to these performances gravitas, but you get the picture; he may have understood these songs when he wrote them, but he hadn’t fully lived them yet.

Ultimately, Recovery is really nothing more than reheated leftovers. But just because you’ve had something before doesn’t mean it’s bad – think of these 13 tracks as a nice turkey salad sandwich the day after Thanksgiving, and know the best part is that he’ll likely be serving up another fine course in another year or two.

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