Since seeing Martha Wainwright at Wychwood Festival a few years ago, I’ve followed her career with interest, always suspecting that the real vocal talent in the Wainwright siblings didn’t belong to her more flamboyant brother but actually Martha herself. Incidentally, I’ve also always really envied her incredible legs, which if Pretty Polly don’t wake up to and offer her an advertising contract sharpish, they’re fools to themselves.
Said legs are paraded seductively on the album cover, which was taken by former YBA (actually – good point – when do you stop being a YBA?) Sam Taylor Wood. The involvement of such a figure, along with a gaggle of musicians including Garth Hudson, Pete Townshend, brother Rufus and mum and aunt Kate and Anna McGarrigle respectively, serve to up Martha’s credibility ratings. Not that she needs to worry about such issues as being cool. The voice (hereon referred to as ‘The Voice’) alone confidently sweeps such anxieties aside without even trying.
On this, her second album, her vocals do more than prove she has not just a fine pair of lungs on her but that she is the real deal: she can go from sounding coy and girlish to wearying and experienced in the space of an octave (“I Wish I Were”).
Like her debut, this LP is similarly emotionally honest (what else can you say about a debut boasting a song title like “Bloody Mother Fu**ing A**hole”?!). Although there are still some allusions to her father Loudon Wainwright III, on this outing she seems more interested in documenting heartbreak – oddly perverse given that she’s recently tied the knot. But when has Martha (or indeed any of the members of her famous family) been accused of being conventional? She and brother Rufus have subjected their father to well documented slaggings in previous songs and the drama of their family life has claimed many column inches in the music press. I won’t labour over it all here, simply because to do so would detract from celebrating the immense affection I feel for this album after only a handful of listens. Martha has a voice that immediately lures you into her psychological landscape; a landscape which is fascinating not only because it lists aftershows and all the paraphernalia that comes with being a child of rock royalty, but also for the sheer depth of raw feeling it conveys.
And those feelings are not just intense. There’s breadth as well as depth to offer here. Yes Martha’s still angry, but on this album we traverse a wide range of emotions, from melancholy to desolate to hopeful and desiring. “So Many Friends” perhaps best sums up the album’s peripatetic emoting. From the wistful “I have lost so many friends/I have gained so many memories” to the excitable “I live and breathe for the rush when we touch”, the track encapsulates the whole album’s tendency to emotional see-sawing and sucks in the listener completely. “The George Song” is more playful: Martha’s voice seems to gurgle and tease as she upbraids a lover for liking Captain Beefheart:
“You played the captain/And I will, I will never understand/ Why you love the beef heart/More than you could love the common man”.
This lyric stakes her claim to a place in musical history, scoffing at it’s patriarchal lineage just as she has her biological paternity. This place is guaranteed on the basis of this album alone; she is much, much more than a footnote to her famous parent’s biographies. She sings with such style it’s impossible to dispute the fact that this album is one of those clichés beloved of music hacks – an instant classic.
“You Cheated Me” is so in your face pop I’m surprised it isn’t A-list on every radio station going; whereas “In The Middle of the Night” is one of the album’s darkest moments – a response to her mother Kate McGarrigle’s cancer – with Martha’s chilling wails set against backing vocals from Rufus, brooding flutes, guitars and ominous, building drums. The tune evokes an Easter-period Patti Smith and the effect is as spellbinding as it is menacing.
The tracks couldn’t be more different but both allow That Voice to demonstrates its natural range. The whole album dips into a variety of styles: from the pure pop handclaps on “Love is a Stranger” through acoustic folk and rock all the way to the gloomy, bluesy “Tower Song”, the album drips with melodies.
Opening track “Bleeding All Over You” is reminiscent of Tori Amos undergoing psychoanalysis, and sets the tone for a dramatic group of songs which at times also recall Carole King or Fleetwood Mac (but glammer). Yep, there’s a distinctly middle of the road leaning to many of the musical arrangements. But this shouldn’t put you off – the way Wainwright’s voice relays her romantic travails is sensational; she wrings every last drop of emotion from each line in a marvellously dramatic way. It shouldn’t work – how many times have you winced at the vocal gymnastics of the likes of Mariah Carey or Celine Dion? But it does.
The only time things slip – tellingly – is on the covers (Pink Floyd and The Eurhythmics). They’re okay, but nothing more. An artist of Martha Wainwright’s talent doesn’t really need to rely on covers. When you compare them to the spooky “Jesus and Mary” they merely seem quaint, surplus to requirements. That’s right – she’s also got a way with words. Not fair is it?!
I’m going to stop effusing now, but before I sign off let me say that Martha Wainwright has a natural poise and grace without sounding contrived, or threatening to smother the emotional histrionics that she is famed for.
This is a classy album that will appeal to the serious music fan as well as more casual listeners who are partial to Madames Winehouse and Duffy: I have every confidence it will make an appearance in the inevitable top ten albums of 2008 lists later this year. It’ll certainly be on mine.
Martha Wainwright Official Website
By: Lindsey Davis