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Critic's pick: Loudon Wainwright III

Loudon Wainwright III

Recovery

The story goes that the seeds for Recovery were planted while Loudon Wainwright III and Joe Henry were recording tunes for the soundtrack to Judd Apatow's film Knocked Up, which was released in 2007 as a sublime album called Strange Weirdos.

When work on the business music was complete at Henry's home studio, requests were made for Wainwright to dig out and re-record some of his much older material with the studio musicians on hand, as they were already "paid for and willing."

Hence Recovery, a batch of new recordings of vintage Wainwright tunes pulled from the songsmith's first five albums. In fact, 11 of Recovery's 13 selections come from the first three. But there's nothing antiquated about this music. The lap steel guitar of Greg Leisz that wraps around the strangely sobering The Drinking Song (originally from 1972's Album II) and Bill Frisell's discreet guitar chiming on the literary coming-of-age saga School Days (from Wainwright's 1970 debut record) sufficiently underscore the vitality in these long-ago songs.

But Wainwright's gift for narrative was worldly even in his youth. Sure, Motel Blues betrays a youthful promiscuity as it seeks overnight, after-show companionship on the road. But even here, an astute dichotomy is at work. The lyrics seem more in line with the whimsical side of Wainwright's artistic profile. "I'll buy you breakfast," Wainwright sings. "They'll think you're my wife." But the music is so wistful that you are drawn into the inherent loneliness that triggered the liaison in the first place.

A far more idyllic romance turns gray and desperate on New Paint. Written when Wainwright was still in his early 20s, the singer views himself as "a used-up 20th-century boy." Seeing as Wainwright is now 61, the tune has almost uncomfortably come into its own. Again, the surrounding sound — Leisz on pedal steel and Patrick Warren on some especially ruminative piano backdrops — emphasizes New Paint's artfully peeling layers.

Some of the music's perspectives emerge in a less-weighty manner. Be Careful There's a Baby in the House bears an especially bright family intimacy considering that it was penned before Wainwright and then-wife Kate McGarrigle celebrated the birth of their first child (Rufus Wainwright). But on The Movies Are a Mother to Me, celluloid fantasy seems to be a medicinal balm for family squabbles. Then, as the song plays out, the demons are revealed to be internal and more than a little schizophrenic.

That takes us to The Man Who Wouldn't Cry. Wainwright has previously cut this one twice, in 1973 and in 1993. The song also was the finale to Johnny Cash's 1994 career-redefining American Recordings. There, the song's recital of Job-like misfortunes (the protagonist sheds not a tear after losing his dog, his wife, his employment, even his arm) are not at all dissimilar to the Cash novelty hit A Boy Named Sue. On Recovery, it is played eerily, almost nobly straight, with Frisell again adding jangly counterpoint, this time to a string section. Throw in a modest shuffle underneath it all, and the tune turns almost psychedelic in a Dear Mr. Fantasy sort of way. And those final verses, the ones set in heaven, now possess a level of retribution (it ends with Earth being scorched by unending drought) only hinted at in Wainwright's previous versions.

Such is Recovery's ultimate history lesson: give a finely crafted song proper respect and musical attention, and it will thrive in any age.

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