40 Odd Years
By Loudon Wainwright III (Shout Factory)
Minor is a lousy look for somebody hoping to sell a four-CD box plus bonus DVD that will set you back 50 bucks. Who does he think he is‑-Yes? Yet one odd thing about 40 Odd Years is that the title speaks for itself. Wainwright may not have Prine's heart or McGarrigle's tonsils, but compared to either he's been amazingly persistent and prolific. In 1993 he put out a live best-of called Career Moves. Complain that 11 of those songs are repeated here if you like. I'll note that eight are not, and that any of them would fit right in if it was‑-he's got a whole lot of material. Career Moves came out 18 years ago, which means that all of the third disc here was recorded later, just as all of the "Rare & Unreleased" fourth was essentially unavailable until the box appeared. Moreover, and extraordinary for these extravaganzas, the fourth disc is not crap‑-not close. Most of the songs are new to us and many are superb, including the pathetic "Laid" (hers are saggy, his is small), the elegiac "Hank and Fred" (Williams and Rogers as co-equals), the post-9/11 "No Sure Way" (among the victims, a subway stop), and the horseman-pass-by "Dead Man," which mourns his dead father and his soon-dead self with equal dispassion.
What makes Wainwright a good box candidate is that so many of his 24 albums on 14 labels are uneven enough to repay cherry-picking. What makes him a bad one is that quite a few of them are worth hearing on their own‑-Grown Man, say. Not all of these songs will make you say umm the moment it comes on. But the first half of the first disc is astonishing proof of how much pizzazz he had just joking around, with even less heart and tonsils than he's grown since. And later in the set, many of the songs you don't first recognize grow on you fast and sometimes big. "Hollywood Hopeful" is a hoot, "So Many Songs" anything but, "When I'm at Your House" in between.
Then there's that DVD. It's over three hours, way too long for one sitting and just plain way too long. Beginning with a one-hour Dutch documentary from the '90s and augmented throughout by interviews and patter, it's mostly performance clips that date all the way back to the '70s‑-some of which offer up keepers the CDs missed, my personal favorite being his best political song, which in a typical twist concerns figure-skating lowlife Tonya Harding. Tour-based as it has to be, this exhaustive and exhausting audiovisual record leaves a powerful overall impression of an odd man out who has spent 40 years alone on the road. It helps you admire his persistence and understand why he's a dick. It strongly suggests that his difficulties with human relationships led to the life he chose rather than vice versa.
The thing is, his difficulties with human relationships have combined with his obsessive craft to produce an unparalleled bunch of songs about family life. "Your Mother and I," "Your Father's Car," his indelible version of Peter Blegvad's "Daughter"‑-even if your family history is less neurotic than Wainwright's, as it probably is, you can recognize its dynamics in the man's endless self-examination, bitter analysis, and joking around. Some of the more generalized laughs get old eventually‑-it'll be a while before I need to hear "The Acid Song" again. But "Bein' a Dad" I could play right now.
Whether this experience is worth your 50 bucks is for you to figure out. But I'll tell you one thing. Wainwright didn't have the guts or good sense to include his greatest and most painful family song of all: Grown Man's "That Hospital." Try to check it out. Might clarify your decision, might not.
JeffC: you're not the only one who cares about that song.
I humbly offer "Christgians" instead of "Christgauvians", although if the latter is the preferred construction I am happy to accept it.
can anyone confirm that the absolutely atrocious-sounding noises obscuring her singing on the second track are actually supposed to be on the record?
yeah, probably. they're all over my copy, anyway. but i dig 'em; cool alienation effect(s), sez me.
I caught a typo in the last sentence of the Lethem review:
But it could just be that he’s such an openhearted, unconventional critic.h
No need to apologise, thanks for making the effort to tune in, and glad you liked what you heard.
Do you have an internet radio? I have one but for copyright reasons (I guess) I can't get a lot of US stations. I had hoped to listen to Jon Langford's show from Chicago (the Eclectic Ballroom, I think it's called) but I can't. I use it a lot for BBC 6 Music, which is pretty great, especially Gideon Coe on Monday to Thursday evenings, 9 to 12 GMT (though he's on the breakfast show this week), Tom Ravenscroft (John Peel's son) on Friday evenings, and Tom Robinson (the one and same) on Fridays and Saturdays. Cerys Matthews (ex Catatonia) is pretty good too on Sunday mornings.
I've also found a lot of great African stations, especially Soukous Radio African - no DJs, just loads of great soukous.
But obviously Raidio na Life is the best!
Most of the songs are new to us and many are superb; the pathetic "Laid" (hers are saggy, his is small), the elegiac "Hank and Fred" (Williams and Rogers as co-equals), the post-9/11 "No Sure Way" (among the victims, a subway stop), and the horseman-pass-by "Dead Man,"
"This is the Day" by The The
talk about staying in the holiday budget, just used a promotional Amazon Prime credit of $2 emailed to me on Thanksgiving to buy a just-recently reduced A Very She and Him Christmas mp3 download for $1.99. Still a penny left over!
whatup Extreme Couponing!
Slightly late getting back here - I just checked my vinyl Vol 7, and it doesn't contain the Jackie Moore, the Blue Magic, or the Pickett (no Pickett at all on the vinyl vol 7, strangely enough). With six out of eighteen tracks featuring Flack, Hathaway, or McCann, I definitely think vol 7 is a dip. Although the last volume of the CD is clearly significantly different and stronger than the vinyl. Maybe "falls off a cliff" was a bit strong. Out of a tree? Off a wall? In a hole? Down the hill?
Are there many artists that have 25 or some-odd really good songs out of a not-tiny career, and the rest is not worth it at all?
about the blogger
Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He teaches in New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, maintains a comprehensive website at robertchristgau.com, and has published five books based on his journalism. He has written for MSN Music since 2006.