By Richie Unterberger

Loudon Wainwright's self-titled 1970 debut album (also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music) introduced a refreshingly iconoclastic talent into the burgeoning singer-songwriter scene. As witty and varied as the plainly arranged songs on Loudon Wainwright III were, however, they didn't ring up many sales, despite collecting numerous critical accolades. Much the same deal took place when 1971's Album II came out, leading to Atlantic dropping Wainwright from the label, though fortunately he was able to continue his recording career without much interruption.

    Like Loudon Wainwright III, Album II had little in the way of backing instrumentation. Where his debut LP had nothing but Wainwright's voice and acoustic guitar, the follow-up did at least have one track, "Old Paint," with backup vocals by his then-wife Kate McGarrigle (herself a recording artist of note, though she had yet to start recording as half of a duo with her sister Anna) and harmonica by Saul Broudy. Plus, Loudon moved over to the piano for "Samson and the Warden." Otherwise, however, it was as stark an acoustic-guitar-and-voice production (which for "Me and My Friend the Cat," "Cook That Dinner, Dora," and "Glenville Reel" was credited to Milton Kramer, and for other tracks to Wainwright himself) as its predecessor. This led him to not only often be classified as a folkie, but also sometimes labeled a "new Dylan," though he wasn't nearly as steeped in folk and rock traditions as many singer-songwriters were, and already had an acerbic persona that set him far apart from Bob Dylan.

    "I'm not interested in rock and roll," he confessed to Melody Maker in 1971. "I'm no big rock and roll freak. Okay. I like to listen to it occasionally, but I ain't got a tranny up to my ear all day. There are other, more interesting types of music for me. There's the old music, like the traditional music, it could be traditional American music, it depends where I am at the time. But I've never really been to lots of rock concerts." In 1974, talking to Karl Dallas (also for Melody Maker), he added, "What I do is not really rooted in any kind of folk tradition apart from the fact that I happen to play a guitar and write songs."

    As on his first album, there was no shortage of humor on Album II, often of the bitingly wicked sort. There was also no shortage of offbeat subjects to address, from the groupie one-night stand of "Motel Blues" and mixed feelings about parenthood ("Be Careful There's a Baby in the House") to a mundane airplane ride ("Plane, Too") and getting his hair cut off by a cold-hearted jailer ("Samson and the Warden"). Some of the song titles alone ("Nice Jewish Girls," "Suicide Song," "Me and My Friend the Cat") were evidence enough that Wainwright wasn't singing about the usual rock'n'roll concerns. And as he had on songs from his first album like "Glad to See You've Got Religion," Wainwright wasn't afraid to position himself as a distasteful character expressing thoughts that most of us (and certainly most songwriters) would like to remain hidden, like envy ("Saw Your Name in the Paper") and drunken depression ("I Know I'm Unhappy"). Of course, Loudon was never one to offer self-righteous moralistic calls to arms. "I was never much interested in the agit-prop political aspect of folk music," he confessed to Jason Gross of the Perfect Sound Forever website in 1998. "I never found it as compelling as the love ballads, murder ballads and novelty songs. Allan Sherman was more interesting to me in a way than Phil Ochs. It's just my taste."

    As to the peculiar romantic inclinations explored in songs like "Nice Jewish Girls," "Cook That Dinner, Dora," and "Motel Blues," Wainwright told Karl Dallas, "All I can say is, you know, my relationships with women have always been good and bad and complex and confusing and great and never clear and never one thing or another. It's an amazingly complex difficult thing which I'm still trying to figure out. I don't expect I'll really ever understand how it all works. I suppose that's why I write about it. There's lots of references to men and women in my songs, and sex -- not screwing so much -- but it's just that the sex thing, the battle of the sexes or whatever that cliche is, it's a good topic because there are always men and women out there in the audience."

    One such song from Album II proved especially controversial. "I once sang 'Motel Blues', the one about the lonely singer looking for a girl to take back to his motel room, on a women's liberation program on a radio station in Chicago," he reported to Dallas. "The moderator was a very angry woman and she suggested that perhaps I ought to have my genitals removed. She reacted to it very strongly, in a very hostile way. And other people and other women have talked about that particular song and said that it's good I can talk about it and...I don't know. When I wrote it I wasn't thinking about women's liberation. I was thinking about motel blues."

    Continued Wainwright in the same piece, "I don't write songs about Vietnam or impeaching the president or women's liberation or the black situation, you know they're not protest songs or social political songs. The ones that I usually end up dealing with are the sort of things that are discussed at the breakfast table. For instance, I've got songs about drinking, which is a very political thing, I think. People drink, and it affects the way they treat other people and treat themselves and decisions are made or are not made and things are done or not done under the influence of alcohol and that makes it political. That's the politics of being, of existing, almost." His most direct early song about the matter, "Drinking Song," was recorded for Atlantic and originally intended for Album II, but not released at the time, only surfacing on a limited edition reissue about 30 years later.

    What Wainwright certainly did have was a lot of songs. According to Rolling Stone's review of Album II, "Wainwright's first record could have been a double album, for he was singing many of the songs recorded here before even the first one was recorded. His sets often opened with the first cut on this album, 'Me and My Friend the Cat.'" Loudon's remembered writing two or three songs a week in his early days, and as he revealed to Melody Maker in 1971, "I don't work on writing songs, they just materialize. It's a waiting game. Sometimes I do try and sit down to create to fabricate a song, but it doesn't work. I just have to wait till it comes. The best songs I've written come out within a period of 30 minutes to an hour."

    But like his first album, Album II failed to make the charts, though the critical reaction was again glowing. Rolling Stone's Karin Berg certainly liked it, her 12-paragraph review comparing it favorably to his debut: "On the first record, I wished there had been some additional lightness and more display of Wainwright's abilities with lyrical melodies (he has a good, clear voice), but those were my only arguments. Its tone was a little heavy and didn't totally reflect the performing Wainwright; of course few records capture the personality we hear and see in performance, but the gentle, ironic sense of humor slipped by to a marked degree. Wainwright's material is personal and naked, comparable to the function of  poetry. There's a lot of pain there but Wainwright is fun sometimes,, too, and more of that is on this record, with the explications of loneliness...His forte is lyrics, but the melodies are always excellent. As a guitarist, he can't be described as a fine musician, but the structure, accents, arrangements are. It all fits into a total unit and he does it alone. Remarkable." Concluded Berg (later to become a vice-president of A&R at Warner Brothers), "It's obvious that Album II is one of the major records of the year and this is one of our major talents."

    Looking back on his stint at Atlantic in an autobiographical summary of his career on the Rosebud Agency website, Wainwright wryly observed, "My first two albums were positively retro, unadorned, without a trace of the drums, bass, and tasteful pedal steel guitar lickage that was going around at the time. My instincts paid off as the critics, always looking for the next new thing, and desperate then to fill the Dylan vacuum (Bob was out of commission at that time, holed up in Woodstock, recovering from a motorcycle accident), decided I was, to shamelessly quote one hyperbolic hack, 'A blinding new talent.' All my work on packaging had paid off. I’d been noticed. The songs I had written were also very good. That helped."

    But it wasn't good enough for his label. "In 1972 after making two critically acclaimed but largely unpurchased LPs (long-playing vinyl recordings for you young folk) Atlantic’s crush on me was over and I was dropped," continued Wainwright in the same autobiographical piece. "I was then picked up (yet another weird term, this one connotative of prostitution) by Columbia Records." It wasn't long before he'd chalked up his only hit single, "Dead Skunk" (which made the Top Twenty in early 1973), going on to a decades-long recording and performing career that's seen his talents showcased in remarkably diverse settings. Aside from putting out about 20 more albums, he's appeared on numerous television series and films; worked as the original musician sidekick to David Letterman; and was commissioned to write topical songs by both National Public Radio and ABC television's Nightline. One of his and Kate McGarrigle's children, Rufus Wainwright, is now an acclaimed singer-songwriter himself.

    Through it all, Wainwright has never been shy of exposing, sometimes in painful if comic detail, his foibles in song. "It's just my taste," he declared to Perfect Sound Forever. "That's the way that I write. I do have a tendency to write about my own life and explore some of the difficulties and painful aspect of it. But it's not necessarily painful to do it -- it's natural to do it, for me anyway." -- Richie Unterberger


contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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