Loudon Wainwright III
First Appeared in The Music Box, August 1999, Volume 6, #8
Written by John Metzger
Social Studies is Loudon Wainwright III’s debut on the Hannibal Records/Rykodisc label, and based on the songs contained on the disc, it’s sure to be a long and prosperous relationship. The album compiles songs that Wainwright has written and performed for National Public Radio over the past decade.
As can be expected, Wainwright tackles a variety of social and political topics, and little escapes his brilliant, but piercing wit. Indeed, nothing is sacred as he skewers everything in sight, including Tonya Harding, O.J. Simpson, Bill Clinton, Jesse Helms, the music business, religion, and even Santa Claus. It is true that you must agree with his political point of view to enjoy the humor in most of the songs on this disc. However, since I do, I have to say that I haven’t laughed this hard at a collection of folk songs in a long, long time.
The centerpiece of the album is a hilarious send-up of the impending computer crisis, appropriately titled Y2K. Wainwright delivers the song as a rap number, accentuating his lyrics with a funky groove and a horn section. While this works perfectly on this track, the songwriter is content to deliver the rest of his songs in the more comfortable context of folk and country music.
Wainwright is backed by a top-notch band that includes longtime collaborator Chaim Tannenbaum on banjo, harmonica and vocals as well as bassist Greg Cohen (who played with Tom Waits) and David Mansfield (who has played with Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash) on guitar, violin, and mandolin. What Gives opens the disc and sets the tone perfectly as Wainwright provides a status report on ’60s groups, before he diverges into an attack on the music business’ current fondness for duets and reunions. No matter how you feel about the Beatles’ recent archival output and recent creations, you just have to laugh at Wainwright’s take on the scene. There’s no question that he loves the band, but just can’t stand the current reigning pursuit of the almighty dollar.
Unlike comedy albums, which quickly wear thin, Social Studies only becomes more endearing with each listen. Wainwright’s clever knack for turning a phrase and his immense talent for crafting gorgeous, infectious melodies shine quite brightly on this delightful collection. More importantly, as we head into the next millennium, he looks back on the ’90s, taking his stance and making his point — no doubt hoping enough people will remember history and not repeat it.
Social Studies is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 1999 The Music Box