It was “like restaging a play,” according to producer Joe Henry, when he and Loudon Wainwright III decided (after working together on the Knocked Up soundtrack) to go back and re-record some of the latter man’s songs for a new record, Recovery (Yep Roc). Revivals of plays aren’t uncommon, and we’re used to the joys of hearing the old lines through new ears, but similar projects are rarely taken seriously by songwriters — one thinks instead of the cheap anthologies in which aging singers plow through weak-limbed versions of their hits, likely because they had lousy contracts in their youths and don’t make much money from the actual greatest hits discs.
Recovery resembles those not in the least. Here, the elder Wainwright (whose daughter Martha did the family name proud recently with the brilliant I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too) returns to some songs many casual fans wouldn’t know, just because he felt they could benefit from the ol’ Joe Henry touch. (And whose couldn’t? Contrast the new Solomon Burke record, Like a Fire, with his heart-grabbing Henry-produced Don’t Give Up on Me, to see what the producer brings to a session.) In other cases, he sings tunes that (as with topical references in a 40 year-old play) mean something different now than they once did: Try listening to “Saw Your Name in the Paper,” a sad-but-resigned message to a novice fame-seeker, without imagining how Loudon felt when son Rufus began making a name for himself by romanticizing his vices.
Wainwright has gotten quirkier over the years, progressing from heartwrenching confessionals to borderline novelty tunes. Robyn Hitchcock, on the other hand, has been odd from the start. Take “My Wife and My Dead Wife” from Fegmania!, the earliest of three albums reissued (along with a double CD full of unreleased goodies) in the new Yep Roc box set Luminous Groove: A married man is haunted by his first wife’s ghost and can’t help but dwelling on the fact that her trousers are out of style. Fegmania! is joined here by the live disc Gotta Let this Hen Out! and Element of Light, whose bracing opening track was my introduction to Hitchcock in 1986: A ditty called “If You Were a Priest,” it offers three strange seduction fantasies, the last of which once again has Robyn romancing a ghost. In the meanderingly psychedelic banter of Hitchcock’s live shows, it can be hard to tell whether the guy is having a laugh or genuinely twisted; I choose to think it’s a bit of both.
Other pranksters with fresh records out include Negativland, who lead Thigmotactic (Seeland) with a song claiming that Richard Nixon “went to a special place in Heaven ...Yorba Linda.” That’s right, I said “song”: The group of culture-jammers best known for found-sound collages (like the infamous one built around Casey Kasem’s off-air ranting about a new band called U2) has made a record with guitars, choruses, and something approximating singing. Not good singing, but still, it’s an effort. Honestly, the most enjoyable tracks here hew closest to the group’s typical style, like “It’s Not a Critique,” and Negativland followers may wish this band of culture-skewering smartypants had skipped the yodelling lessons and let eight years of Dubya Nation provoke a seriously political magnum opus. Maybe next time.
Brothers and Sisters
Lastly, one from a newish band that isn’t trying to make you laugh at all: The second record by Austin’s Brothers and Sisters, Fortunately, might well have made them stars had it been released a dozen years ago, when everybody and his Dobro was trying to evoke Gram Parsons — and quite a few bands made money doing it less convincingly than these guys. Not that the granddaddy of No Depression is the only touchstone here: Los Angelenos before and after him influence these sun-bleached sounds, with Mamas and Papas harmonies leaking out and (as songwriter Will Courtney suggests and you’ll probably believe) the ghost of Hal Ashby and a few other New Hollywood filmmakers helping direct the narratives. The only thing I find eyebrow-raising about the group is that they got one of their first big breaks touring with the considerably less laid-back ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. •