It’s not easy being a Wainwright. Even the most cursory listen to I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too, the much anticipated second album from Martha, the baby of the family, will only serve to reinforce that impression. From the unrequited love of opener ‘Bleeding All Over You’ onwards the tone is one of nerve end-exposing confessional honesty. Although she’s been quick to state for the record that I Know You’re Married… is less autobiographical than 2005′s personal (and near perfect) debut, it’s not all outward looking. Even if she’s now found a degree of domestic happiness with producer Brad Albetta the last few years have clearly been anything but a comfortable ride. There is the same intimacy of expression, even if this time it occasionally hides a little deep below the more ambitious production and commercial sensibilities. Stylistically diverse – as you might expect from an album with five different producers, including Tore Johansson (The Cardigans), Martin Terefe (KT Tunstall) and Jeff Trott (Sheryl Crow) as well as her husband and mum Kate McGarrigle – the tracklist seems calculated to show off her undoubted range. With ‘You Cheated Me’, Wainwright makes her boldest stab yet at the pop charts and the kind of female singer-songwriter angst niche once filled by the likes of Alanis Morissette.
The album includes an impressive range of guest musicians (thirty-one in total!), including Steely Dan’s Donald Fagan, The Band’s Garth Hudson and no less a luminary than Pete Townshend, with whom she has struck up an unlikely musical friendship. Big brother Rufus pops up on ‘The George Song’ and the reference to the continued negative example of her father in long-serving live favourite ‘Jimi’ serves to ensure this is still resolutely a family affair. Pink Floyd’s ‘See Emily Play’, featuring aunt Anna McGarrigle on synths and cousin Lily Lanken on backing vocals, gets stripped of psychedelia and turned into a mid-Atlantic power pop anthem, whilst the unexpected melodic tangents of ‘Hearts Club Band’ and unlikely chanson of ‘Tower Song’ suggest a musical store cupboard similar to that of Syd Barrett. The latter also represents a tentative foray into political commentary, its anti-war poetry suggesting that despite her lack of confidence in tackling bigger social issues it may well be a fruitful field in which to labour in future. But it is with ‘In The Middle Of The Night’, an uncomfortable gothic folk number written about her mother’s recent battle with cancer, that I Know You’re Married… finds its starkest and most impressive emotional voice.
Whereas Kate McGarrigle’s brush with mortality had a happy outcome, the mother of fellow former Rufus backing singer Joan Wasser was not so lucky. In her guise as Joan As Police Woman, Wasser has made an equally emotion-rich second album, with the considered title To Survive. If survival was something that eluded her mother, Wasser seems intent on transfiguring her loss into something positive. There is the same smoky theatricality of 2006′s debut Real Life combined with the kind of knowing maturity that only comes with age. Whereas Wainwright’s songwriting often feels lost in the moment and bereft of hope, Wasser seems to imbue even the bleakest lament with a fragile optimism. You sense it’s that which gets her through. Stately album opener ‘Honor Wishes’ is a perfect example, where lyrics like “would you love me and not my need to be loved?” are carried aloft by rolling sighs courtesy of none other than David Sylvian to magnificent effect.
Elsewhere, unexpected key changes suddenly lift you into sunnier vistas, and there’s peace at the heart of numbers like ‘Holiday’ and the jazzy ‘Magpies’, which features old friend Nathan Larson on backing vocals. Wasser’s outspoken political charge pokes its head through the personal tragedy with ‘Furious’, a percussion-driven rage against what she sees as the calculated stripping away of the individuals democratic influence in her own country. It was not for nothing she once dedicated the live performance of the song to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Despite this, the sax-laden closing track ‘To America’ – a duet with Rufus himself – is like a solitary July 4 firework, signalling that idealism continues beneath the detritus of personal and political disappointment. It’s the title track, though, that makes the greatest impression. It’s the newly orphaned adult expressing her protective instinct to the helpless child, the baton of responsibility being passed on.
If I Know You’re Married… is the sound of an artist finding her own voice above and beyond the family brand, To Survive signals an artist moving out of the shadows of her former employers into a space of her own, one it’s at times an emotionally uncomfortable pleasure to share.
[Drowned In Sound; May 12, 2008 / Reveal; June 9, 2008]