At first, it didn't bode well for Martha Wainwright, in my book. The opening song on her eponymous album begins with a wistful "Far away..." sung in a high, almost chipmunk voice. I have to admit that I am not fond of waif girl singers. I tend to favor the stronger, deeper tones of Siouxsie Sioux and Marianne Faithful, and more recently Fiona Apple (on Extraordinary Machine, at least). The airy pop of "Far Away" reminded me of the legions of frilly dreamers who followed in Kate Bush's wake. Not that there's anything wrong with Kate, at least in her early-mid period. In her younger years, Bush was able to turn her ballerina eccentricities into vivid, almost cinematic experiences, and the rougher, more experimental work on The Dreaming and Hounds of Love pushed the boundaries of pop.
"Far Away" is a decent enough song, but it isn't till mid-way through the second track, "GPT," when at the end of the phrase, "I've laid my claim, I thought for sure that I'd be yours. Oh, but your friend is much more, but he's got a date and she's got a name," Wainwright yells, "I don't care!" and there is the hint that not only is her high voice muscular, but she's willing to push out whatever she's feeling, to stretch, to curse and to surrender. She's a wrong-doer and luckily she's willing to share her own bad impulses with us on tune after tune. Then the record begins to swirl, to embed itself into the brain. The songs are coiled, they spiral suddenly out, throwing everything on the table, at the same time honest, dirty, angry, cynical, and ironic. She plays the coquette, but one that is totally wrecked, her tinkling piano conjuring images of a brothel's back rooms at the end of a particularly long shift.
Wainwright's imagery is packed with gritty observations and conflicting impulses. On "Factory:"
"There are others I have known as poor souls, sores exposed,
the run-of-the-mill, the destitute, and the cold,
sores exposed to the blisters and shards
where any kind of kindness is as far as the sun, the sun
The sun, the sun, run, run, run, run."
There are equal parts wistful pop and modern folk (given her roots as the daughter of a McGarrigle and a Wainwright, I suppose that is inevitable), but she is at her best when she is cutting loose -- not unlike PJ Harvey -- on the rougher, more rollicking tunes like "Ball and Chain," where she is angry and seemingly amused by her own capacity for anger.
"Yeah, her tits were higher than mine
With a waist that is sugar-fine
I heard she could read and write too
And she's getting a degree in Fucking U
It's easier than philosophy
It's easier than chemistry
Where's my chemisty?
Why does this always happen?
Oh why does this always happen?"
The answer to that last question seems obvious. If Martha's going to continue to get herself into trouble, double-crossed by her own bad behavior and scoundrel lovers, she's got something to do with the resulting emotions, roll them up into lovely, snarling tunes and unleash them on the world.
Visit Martha Wainwright's web site (at marthawainwright.com).