Loudon Wainwright III: “Strange Weirdos”

Loudon Wainwright III is a crappy father. Or so I’ve been told. I’ve never met the man, or his children, but he’s admitted as much in his songs– usually with subversive humor, sometimes with brutally honest detail. Thus, hearing him sing a witty and wise ode to his “Daughter” over the closing credits of Judd Aptow’s film Knocked Up… well, there’s something downright joyful about it, something that’s hard to put into words.

And that’s just one of many treasures found on Strange Weirdos, the soundtrack to the movie. It’s not the kind of album that bowls you over with its innovation, or astonishes you with a grand, dramatic vision; rather, it’s an album of simple and subtle pleasures, charms that dazzle us on first listen but only grow more delightful as the music is given time to work its magic on you.

It’s a singer’s album, a songwriter’s album, and a producer’s album. Wainwright sings all of these songs, and he writes most of ’em, which is reason enough to give the record a spin. Forget whatever connotations Aptow’s film might have in your mind; Wainwright is a singer and songwriter of uncommon humor and grace, and anything he does deserves to be heard. And he’s never recorded a batch of songs that sounds better than these, probably because he’s working with the great Joe Henry– and a producer more gifted at capturing the warmth and beauty of songs like these you are unlikely to find.

It’s an album about relationships, about love, about family and parenthood, about age and youth… heck, there’s even a song about chromosomes (“X and Y”). Some of these songs are sung with the warmth and wisdom of age (“Valley Morning,” “Daughter”); others, with the energy and enthusiasm of youth (“So Much to Do,” “Feel So Good”). There’s humor and heart aplenty, and sometimes– as on the title cut or the wickedly funny “Final Frontier”– they mix to devastating effect.

It’s not necessarily what you’d think the Knocked Up soundtrack would sound like– no jokes about body parts, unless you count chromosomes as body parts– and, for the most part, it doesn’t feel very much like a Wainwright or a Henry album; rather, it feels like a genuine collaboration. Wainwright’s songs and singing are at the forefront, but Henry and his cast of musicians– playing mostly acoustic instruments, and including world-class drummer Jay Bellarose and a couple of memorable guest spots for Richard Thompson on electric guitar– give Wainwright a deeper, richer musical backdrop than he’s ever had before. Only one song– the mesmerizing poetry of “You Can’t Fail Me Now”– sounds like a Joe Henry song, and, as luck would have it, it is; Henry and Wainwright wrote the song together, but the lyrics are vintage Henry. (His own version will appear on his upcoming album Civilians).

Every song is a delight, and there’s enough stylistic variety (there are a couple of ragtime piano numbers!) and thematic depth– to say nothing of the character in Wainwright’s songs– to make it a record that rewards repeated listens. It’s one of those rare film soundtracks that works both as a soundtrack but also as its own distinct entity– and indeed, with the grace and elegance of Wainwright and Henry shining so brightly on these songs, it’s probably safe to assume that this is a richer and more rewarding work than the film it’s based on.

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  1. Joe Henry: The Producer (Revised List) « The Hurst Review - January 3, 2011

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