There is an air of expectation about Martha Wainwright. It's a feeling of both instant recognition and mystery-as though a massive reserve of potential has been detected in her but is only being allowed to trickle out.
The anticipation can be traced to many things, but the most obvious one is her name. The Wainwright clan has produced many groundbreaking singer-songwriters-her relatives all-who have been influencing musicians for decades. But that's just the beginning; Martha's been building a reputation as a performer in her own right, playing countless shows of varying size, in which she exposes audiences to her rough-hewn voice and evocative lyrics. She also frequently finds herself in the town where she grew up-Montreal, a city recently dubbed a musical hot spot by the New York Times and Spin Magazine. The impressive EP, Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole, released last year, only acted as a teaser, adding to the expectation and forcing many to ask: When is Martha Wainwright going to release an album?
Well, now there is an answer. April 12. And I get the sense that Martha Wainwright (the album) is appearing exactly when Martha Wainwright (the artist) wanted it to. It's been a long road leading up to this date, one that started well before Martha was even born. The Wainwrights are hands down the most famous musical family to come out of Montreal. Its patriarch is Loudon Wainwright III, who has been recording music for the past thirty-five years, has released twenty-two albums and influenced everyone from Johnny Cash to Richard Buckner. Martha's mother, Kate McGarrigle, is best known for the folk albums she writes with her sister Anna, as well as songs performed with Linda Ronstadt, Gilles Vigneault, Lou Reed and Nick Cave. In more recent years, Rufus Wainwright, Martha's older brother, has become a media darling for his "popera" brand of song-a combination of baroque flourishes, irresistible hooks and literary lyrics that has proved immensely successful and profitable.
Her musical pedigree has given Martha many opportunities to hone her skills-she's sung backup, she's done duets (with Gordon Gano, Rufus and others), she's gone on tour-but perhaps the most useful skill she has acquired is how not to sound like her famous relatives.
After a brief flirtation with Concordia University's drama school, Martha moved to New York. It was there that she began writing her own songs and performing in bars. She even recorded a few tracks and sold copies of them at her shows. In no rush to sign a contract, the singer bided her time, allowing her material to deepen and mature. Wisely, she did not rush to capitalize on her name, preferring to rely on performance as the main venue for her creations. This, coupled with her status as one of the youngest in the clan, made her something of an underdog. She sings from a place that is completely removed from her famous parents and older, obnoxious brother.
Nowhere is this more evident than on the new album. Martha Wainwright, as the title suggests, comes off as a tribute to the artist herself. This is not done in a self-conscious manner, but through careful emphasis on Wainwright's unique attributes. Her voice-in turn rough, soaring and understated-is highlighted at every turn. Rarely do the guitars, organs and drums overstep their supporting role; they shape and shade the songs, subtly mimicking vocals that quiver, expand, explain and philosophize. She co-produced the album with Brad Albetta, and they concentrate on the staying power of the songs. On "Don't Forget" and "This Life" especially, the guitar merely hints at a depth that you can easily tumble into with repeated listens.
The lyrics, for their part, speak to a grand narrative-the story of a singer who has paid very close attention on the road that has led her to the studio door. Together, the tracks make up a tribute to transience, pushing singer and listener along through moments that are both beautiful and ephemeral. Consider some of the titles: "Far Away," "When the Day is Short," "Whither Must I Wander." On "Factory," one of the stronger songs on the album, Wainwright tells a tale of not belonging, of moving from scene to scene ("from factory to factory"-very Williamsburg) until she finds a place to settle. It's a story sung with a beautiful, calculated lethargy. This is a trick often deployed by her brother, but it's different here-and more successful. For Martha, this tone is one of a narrator stepping back to tell a story; for Rufus, it's more of a mask, an insistence that the song is not about him when, of course, it really is.
One of the most remarkable things about this album is how honest Wainwright sounds. Perhaps this can be credited to her underdog image, but never does a poor-me persona come across in her singing. Even when she pleads, "Take me down off this cross and lay me down," one gets the impression that she doesn't want pity-she's just sick of hanging there. In a sea of indie rock collapsing under its own ironic hipness, Martha's sincerity is a refreshing development. It's emotional, not a comment on emotion. In many such moments, Wainwright comes off like Ani DiFranco, minus the self-righteousness.
Listeners will also recognize similarities to a few other singer-songwriters. At her most abstract, Wainwright sounds like Tori Amos; at her folkiest, she sounds like Joni Mitchell; at her most confessional, John K. Sampson. Predictably, the derivative songs are the weakest on the album. You can sense that she's stepping too far away from herself and compensating with established Lilith Fair-type musical constructions. The lyrics become a little obvious, too. "These flowers are coming up wild," she sings on "These Flowers." "They're like those children, going off to school and don't come back. And I am like the mother, waiting around about to cry. Cry-hi, cry-hi." In "Oprah Song," it's unclear whether references to Ms. Winfrey are actually ironic. On all the sub-par tracks, the instruments increase in volume, as if to cover for the singer. The lyrics become threadbare and the songs feels unsure.
Such moments, however, are few; they are part of Wainwright's trajectory. On the whole, this album is a solid achievement for a singer who's had many influences, many shadows to live in. It's been a long wait, but Martha Wainwright is not a minute overdue-as an artist, Martha is now ready to tell her tale.
After an album-release show at Joe's Pub in New York City, Martha Wainwright will head to Montreal for a hometown show on April 18 at Main Hall, 5390 St. Laurent, 9 PM, followed by a sold-out show April 19 at the Drake Hotel in Toronto. She then heads to Europe for a two-week tour.
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