Loudon Wainwright III – Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet) [TrackList follows] – 429 Records

Loudon Wainwright III – Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet) [TrackList follows] – 429 Records FTN17997, 48:08 [9/9/14] ****:

(Loudon Wainwright III – vocals, harmony vocals, acoustic guitar, banjo (track 14); David Mansfield – guitar, spoons, mandolin, Roksichord, drums, percussion, mandocello, National slide guitar, acoustic guitar, violin, programming, ukulele, fiddle, viola, harmony vocals, tin whistle, banjo, Weissenborn, fretless banjo, harmonium, electric sitar, Irish bouzouki, tambourine, tenor ukulele, celeste, sleigh bells, bass drums, producer, horn and string arranger; Sammy Merendino, Joe Strasser – drums; Tim Luntzel, Jeffrey Carney – upright bass; Andy Burton – piano, accordion; Steven Bernstein – trumpet; Steve Elson – tenor saxophone; Curtis Fowlkes – trombone; Stan Harrison – baritone saxophone; Doug Wieselman – clarinet; Marcus Rojas – tuba; Dom Flemons – jug, bones; Chaim Tannenbaum – harmonica, harmony vocals; Will Holshouser – accordion; Andy Taub – jew’s harp; Aoiefe O’Donovan – harmony vocals; Martha Wainwright – background vocals; Glenn Patscha – organ; Armand Hirsch – guitar; Tony Trischka – banjo)

Singer/songwriter Loudon Wainwright III shows he has lost none of his masterful, mordant humor or his pointed look at human foibles on his 23rd studio release, Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet). Across 48 minutes and 14 tracks Wainwright sings about mostly somber subjects with slices of amusement and seriousness, with musical elements which embrace klezmer, country, folk, ‘50s rock and roll, blues, and other genres. Old age, gun control, divorce, love, rich vs. poor, death, and having a pet all have their moments. Wainwright’s etched lyrical matter is excellently empathized by long-time producer David Mansfield (who also handles a plethora of instruments) and a who’s-who of acoustic players, including acclaimed banjoist Tony Trischka; trombonist Curtis Fowlkes (co-founder of the Jazz Passengers); and Wainwright’s daughter, singer/songwriter Martha Wainwright.

This is music which probably lingers best for those who have hit middle age, who understand how it feels to become a grandparent, and who have experienced a half century of life, more or less. The finest tunes here are the ones which effectively merge wit with melancholy mannerisms. Wainwright and Mansfield offer a superb duet on “Depression Blues,” a dimly-tinged ditty combining folk, country and blues, where Wainwright affectingly vocalizes about the darkness behind the smile, and what happens when the audience is gone and a person is left with fleeting memories. Another poignantly powerful number (also a lean Mansfield/Wainwright twosome) is the folk parable, “In a Hurry,” sung in the viewpoint of a homeless man who feels sorry for a businessman whose life doesn’t seem too cheerful or ideal.

Seasonal celebrations also have a tender and subdued shade on several pieces. Album closer the mandolin-permeated “Last Day of the Year,” reflects on mislaid yesterdays and the possibility of brighter tomorrows with promises of losing weight and throwing away the cigarettes. But life has a way of orbiting back. Wainwright notes that by March, we frequently forget our resolutions. The cut which has generated controversy is the understated, crooner-jazz tune “I’ll Be Killing You This Christmas,” an anti-violence ballad which taunts Second Amendment supporters. Some people get the irony of the narrator who praises rifles, hand guns and large rounds of ammunition. Others have been appalled at lines such as “background checks can’t kill a crazy, we need fire power that can win a war” and “My precious Second Amendment guarantees a clip that holds 100 rounds.” Timing is everything, as evidenced during the divorce statement, “Looking at the Calendar,” concerning the perfect date for a marriage to dissolve. “Let’s not split at Thanksgiving, that would be too rough,” Wainwright intones, “and we can’t quit at Christmastime, that’s also insanity.” And finally decides, yes, April Fool’s Day would be best. Further family issues infuse other Wainwright tracks. When Loudon’s son, distinguished singer Rufus Wainwright, was born, Loudon wrote about his child’s adoration for feeding time on “Rufus Is a Tit Man.” This time out, Wainwright pens a birthday greeting to his grown daughter, Martha Wainwright, on the softly contemplative “I Knew Your Mother,” a moving remembrance regarding Martha’s late mom, singer/songwriter Kate McGarrigle (who passed away in 2010), one half of much-admired sibling musical duo, Kate and Anna McGarrigle.

Wainwright’s sharply-sliced jesting is more forthright on opener, “Brand New Dance,” a rollicking, New Orleans-styled rocker about how hard it is for aging troubadours to put on their shoes in the morning, how food starts to taste bland, but at least there’s a senior discount. The sense of getting older also succinctly saturates the charming title track, a jazz-blues piece where Wainwright concedes, “I haven’t got the blues yet, but I admit I’m in the dumps, everyone else is cheerful, I got a bad case of the grumps.” The klezmer-hued “Spaced” is an innocuous bit about circling Big Apple blocks seeking a place to park a car and learning to navigate New York City’s arcane parking rules and regulations. The country-flecked “Man & Dog” ponders pet ownership in an urban area. Wainwright confesses cleaning up the mess is, well, a mess; but it’s effortless to strike up a conversation with someone strolling with her canine, “You just say, ‘what’s her name? How old is she?’ It’s easy, like rollin’ off a log, checkin’ out a woman.”

Producer Mansfield maintains a marvelous acoustic mix throughout, underscoring Wainwright’s lyrics and winking humor with instruments which either highlight or cleverly juxtapose Wainwright’s musical storytelling. A horn section spices up several arrangements; an assortment of stringed instruments (including mandolin, Irish bouzouki, fiddle, ukulele, and others) enhance other tunes; and there are many instances where little nuances can be detected on subsequent listening. The insert booklet helpfully has the lyrics, a must-read for listeners, as well as a collection of illustrations and photos which reinforce Wainwright’s wordplay.

TrackList: Brand New Dance; Spaced; In a Hurry; Depression Blues; The Morgue; Harmless; Man & Dog; Harlan County; I Knew Your Mother; Looking at the Calendar; I’ll Be Killing You This Christmas; God and Nature; Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet); Last Day of the Year.

—Doug Simpson

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