Loudon Wainwright III: So Damn Happy

Duncan White

Loudon Wainwright Iii

So Damn Happy

Label: Sanctuary
US Release Date: 2003-08-19
UK Release Date: 2003-08-18

To find the comedy in tragedy is the mark of a mature talent. Loudon Wainwright III has it in spades. When you marry a gift for a sharp turn of phrase to a wry self-deprecation as Wainwright does, the results are gratifyingly life affirming. There is nothing more boring than the unremitting bleakness of teenage navel-gazing; the best melancholy music is wistful, nostalgic, or darkly comic. WIII blends all three into his disarming folk music.

So Damn Happy is a live album, collating material recorded at gigs in January 2002. Normally, live albums are a pain in the arse. You just get badly produced, mistake-ridden shadows of the songs you know and love, without any of the benefits of actually going to a gig. It's a bit like trying to enjoy the party at the place next door. But some artists are born to perform, and Wainwright is one of them. Simplicity is the key, and Wainwright's folk formula dovetails with this musical understatement well. He involves the audience and their enthusiasm is infectious. Of course it helps when you can call on Van Dyke Parks (piano), Richard Thompson (guitar), and David Mansfield (violin/fiddle/guitar) to back you up. Stewart Lerman is once again on hand with the production, having worked on 2001's Last Man on Earth. Wainwright's daughter also appears, singing a duet with her old man on "You Never Phone". She has a tremendous voice and it's good to see the family talents are spread thick. I discovered Loudon after listening to his son Rufus's luscious 2001 album Poses. On it he covers Loudon's "One Man Guy"; it is the best thing on that record.

"One Man Guy" does not feature here, but there are some Wainwright classics. Most of the songs performed are taken from his '90s work, although "The Home Stretch" and "Westchester County" date from further back. The latter is a great piece of wry autobiography, and a showcase for Wainwright's winning gift for poking fun at himself -- in this case his privileged upbringing. Autobiography figures prominently in many of the songs, and it is always fused with rich insight, especially in "The Picture". He does biography too, with a wonderful paean to psychotic ice-skater Tonya Harding ("Tonya's Twirls"). Meanwhile, "Heaven" and "The Shit Song" emerge gleaming from the murky territory between novelty song and stand-up comedy, and are laugh-out-loud crowd pleasers. And they are not throwaway songs either, just damn funny. But at his best, he is a chronicler of male failure (and a glorious failure it can be), and from here he derives both sadness and humour. "4x10" and "So Damn Happy" are defining documents of male break-up psychology.

There is perhaps just one dud, the ill-advised Freudian a cappella of "Between". But it is the only one. Bob Dylan's influence is writ-large, but Wainwright knows his limits. His aims are simple; to entertain and amuse. So Damn Happy is not just a title; it's a manifesto.

Wainwright has released something like 20 albums; a daunting prospect for anyone trying to get into him. That's why an album like So Damn Happy is an ideal beginning. Not only do you get a privileged overview of his recent work, but you get to see him in his element, gaining an understanding of what really drives him as a songwriter/performer. It's uplifting, funny, and profound and, best of all, shows a tenacious reluctance to leave my CD player.

As an addendum, it might be worth mentioning his acting. Wainwright has apparently been appearing in numerous American sitcoms that I haven't seen. Indeed, there is a film appearance in the offing too. However, the only show I've seen him in is the frankly satanic Ally McBeal, and that was even after that preposterous show had well and truly jumped the shark. It is no great slight on the man though; I'm surprised he can deliver his lines with his tongue wedged so firmly in his cheek

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.