I remember Martha when she began her career by riding in on the coattails of her much more famous older brother (Rufus) and fairly famous musical parents’ music careers (Anna & Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright, respectively). Fortunately for her, she was monumentally talented that having to sit through her opening set before the main attraction (usually Rufus Wainwright) came on was never a chore. Her charismatic approach to the yearning love song left you mesmerized as she’d twist her leg and sing up to the sky as if pleading with God to finally give her what she wanted/needed. I immediately ran to pick up her Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole EP in an effort to possess some of that wondrous stage presence I had witnessed. Much to my dismay, that wonderful yearning and longing did not translate into her recorded efforts. Martha was strictly a live act – that was how to best experience her. The unfortunate problem that Martha faced was that her producers couldn’t capture that fire in her belly when she would belt out her songs.
This improved with every subsequent effort. Her self-titled debut was partly a success. Her wonderfully titled sophomore album I Know You’re Married, But I Have Feelings Too improved on being able to capture that lightning in bottle. Come Home to Mama, her third full-length album of original material, is quite possibly her best so far. Martha has a tendency to write in a very stream of consciousness style, letting the melody follow her train of thought, never fully conforming to the typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure that is standard in pop music. This structural absence makes the listening experience of Come Home to Mama a more ethereal one than anything her older brother has produced as of late.
Ms. Wainwright is also kind of a mess. And this mess-ness is what makes her so monumentally endearing. With lines like “I really like the makeup sex / It’s the only kind I ever get” from “Can You Believe It” and titles like “All Your Clothes”, there’s an aura of wafting and forgetting your head, as if she’s clamouring for meaning in her own structure-less world. It’s part of what makes her a fascinating entertainer and songwriter. However, she does on occasion breach this chaos pushing into the terrain of pure annoyance – less so on Come Home to Mama than previous efforts, but still evident here. The staggering “Radio Star” is an abrasive mess of a paranoid Martha trying to fit in as many words as humanly possible into a pointless melody, only to lead up to an annoying chorus that will surely stick in your head when you’re trying to sleep: “On the radio star / We have travelled so far / On the radio star / We don’t love anymore / And I want you to know that everything that is in your head / Can be heard night and day, so / Watch what you think and say-yeayeyayeayeeeeyaaaaayayayayayay”.
Possibly the only saving grace about “Radio Star” is that it ends and leads into one of the most beautiful piano ballads of her career. The heartbreaking “Prosepina” (originally written by her mother Kate McGarrigle who passed away only a few years back) is truly magical and a prime example of what a monumentally talented family Martha is a part of. It escalates perfectly into a chorus calling Prosepina to go home to mama – a touching connection between mother and daughter and quite possibly the best moment on the album.
Also a highlight on Mama is the superb production by Cibo Matto’s Yuka C. Honda, who manages to give Martha a delicate synthetic touch to each track. Never overshadowing her clearly folksy beginnings, but gently guiding it into a natural progression where Martha’s meanderings sound most at home. Ultimately, Come Home to Mama is the best grouping of original by Martha yet, and helps to cement her as a staggering contender for “Family’s Most Talented”. Unlike most artists who begin to stagger lazily about with additional offerings, Martha has kept plugging away, perfecting her craft, honing her skill and working with the perfect collaborators who can take her idiosyncratic and esoteric style and mould it into something that remains unique and honest to her, while simultaneously comforting and familiar. It’s a rare peak to hit and Martha manages it more so on Mama than ever before.