Wednesday, June 18, 2008

I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too

Here I am, feeling whiny and stuck at JFK because they canceled my flight up to Buffalo and now I'm on one that leaves more than 2 hours later (if it leaves on time). Lovely.

Anyway, enough complaining. I've been listening to Martha Wainwright's new album, I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too and as with her last album, I've got mixed feelings about this one. Martha is a fantastic live performer. She wasn't always--earlier in her career she tended to look miserable on stage and didn't really establish a great rapport with the audience--but she is now. She has this sort of raw, honest quality--or at least her performances can seem raw and honest--that is also quite theatrical when she's singing certain songs. It really separates her from your run of the mill singer-songwriters. The thing is though, that she doesn't seem to be able to transfer the unique quality of her live performances to recordings. I think there are two problems: One is that, while she's a perfectly decent songwriter, she's a more interesting singer than she is a songwriter. She's delightful when she's singing old standards, for example. The other is that her albums are more polished than her live shows and it flattens everything out a bit.

She also doesn't seem to be very prolific. Her first album had some songs from earlier EPs, and that was to be expected. In fact, I was happy about it because some of those songs, like "Don't Forget" are songs I love. But I was a little surprised that this she went back to that well for this album as well. "Jimi" is from her Martha Wainwright EP, which was released in 1999. That same EP gave us "Don't Forget" and "G. P. T." which were on her debut full-length, but those are much stronger songs. This one feels immature. "The Car Song," which is included as a bonus track, if from the Factory EP which was released in 2002. Again, it's something that didn't really need to go on an album as well. (The best song on that EP, incidentally, was her performance of "Bye Bye Blackbird.") "So Many Friends" has also been around for years--I have a recording of her singing it on Routes Montreal in 2004--but is a stronger song and hasn't been released before. "Comin' Tonight" is a song she performed a lot on tours over the last three years or so and it's one I really like. Although for some reason I always thought it was a cover. Apparently I'm delusional. It's quite catchy.

The album also has a couple of covers, one being Syd Barret's "See Emily Play" and the other being the Eurythmics' "Love is a Stranger." I've never heard "See Emily Play" before but it's a nice sounding song in Martha's cover. Taken on it's own her rendition of "Love is a Stranger" is fun, and it's a great song. But it's kind of similar to the Eurythmics version, really, just not as awesome. And her vocals don't match up to those of Annie Lennox. So it just winds up feeling superfluous. Maybe something that it would be a lot of fun to hear her do in concerts but not something that needed to be recorded.

What I'm really interested in then, is all the new to me songs that she wrote for the album. "Bleeding All Over You," the song from which the album title comes, is quite good and lyrically clever. One of my favorite songs on the record. It's followed up by "You Cheated Me," which is totally radio ready. I can just imagine singing along to the chorus while in the car. And unlike some of her songs it works really well on CD and doesn't need a live performance to come to life ("Comin' Tonight" and "Bleeding All Over You" also fit in this "good on CD" category). Another one I really enjoyed immediately is "Hearts Club Band."

There are a slew of other songs though, that I'm waiting to hear live before deciding on. "Jesus and Mary" is one of my favorite songs on the record in terms of lyrics and I think it's going to be really fantastic live. I've heard some shoddy live recordings and it really seems to have weight and propulsion. "In the Middle of the Night" is one I'm not loving now but think might improve significantly with her wailing it from stage. Meanwhile both "Tower Song" (about September 11th? the war?) and "Niger River" (a love song to her husband) are really lovely and interesting vocally. I love the way she sings, "if I can't have you," on "Niger River," drawing out and contracting words to add texture. So I'm looking forward to hearing those live as well, even though I find the lyrics to "Niger Song" to be simultaneously too self-consciously poetic and too self-pitying. And then there is "The George Song" about which I am wildly ambivalent. So maybe hearing that one will help clarify my thoughts. The only new-to-me song I outright dislike on early listens is "I Wish I Were," which I find boring.

So, you see, I'm kind of all over the place. On the balance I like the record, and I can't wait to go see her perform in July, but I always come away from her recordings wishing for more. I'd love to hear her do a live album, I think. I'd also love it if she did an album of standards at some point. But this will certainly do for now.

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