Rufus’ sister kicks his ass on debut LP

Jason LeRoy

Credit: Jason LeRoy

It is nothing short of remarkable that a talent as singular and extraordinary as that of Martha Wainwright could emerge from a family of well-known musicians like the Wainwrights.

Her father, Loudon Wainwright III, and her mother, Kate McCarrigle, are both legendary folk singers steeped in the annals of American music. And yes, her brother is the Rufus Wainwright.

Up until recently, Martha was predominantly known as Rufus’ sister. She toured with him from time to time, singing backup and performing the occasional opening set. However, she had no musical identity to call her own. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, she would forever be in the shadows of her family.

But then, Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole happened. A five-song EP released several months ago, BMFA grabbed listeners by the throat and hissed down their throats that the woman behind these songs was not just another Wainwright. As different as Rufus’ sound is from his parents’, so different also is Martha’s sound from his — vocally, lyrically and musically.

The centerpiece of the EP was the title song. A sterling and vibrant piece of anthemic acoustic catharsis, “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” is truly one of the most inexplicably moving and startlingly emotional songs ever recorded. “Poetry is no place for a heart that’s a whore,” Wainwright rasps at the song’s onset.

The track is the very sound of a shattered human being sloppily declaring liberation from the quiet oppression of life. “I will not pretend, I will not put on a smile / I will not say I’m alright for you,” Wainwright sings in an unadorned voice that transcends the mild cliché of the lyric. And then, of course, there’s the swearing, and as we all know, there are few things more liberating than saying a whole bunch of bad words.

Fortunately for all of us, “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” (recently included by Time Magazine in a special feature on 10 songs “worth at least 99 cents”) is included on Wainwright’s full-length debut CD, the eponymous Martha Wainwright (Zoe/Rounder Records). If Martha Wainwright is the Janet Jackson to Rufus’ Michael, then this is her Control.

It becomes abundantly clear from the album’s opening track, “Far Away,” that Wainwright has her own voice as a singer and songwriter.

She has an ear for striking, dark, unexpected chords; many of her songs begin conventionally before veering unexpectedly into surprising, stunning sonic territory. “Far Away,” for instance, begins sounding as pristine and pretty as early Jewel, but has transformed into something much more authentic and emotional by its conclusion.

Nearly every track is a standout, thanks to the goosebump-raising combination of Wainwright’s lyrics and vocals.

Lyrically, Wainwright writes frank, startling words that sometimes read like poetry, having something of a beat bluntness to them.

Wainwright is also sexually frank in a way unseen since early Liz Phair. On “Ball and Chain,” she sings: “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.”

In every way that Rufus is smooth, polished and refined, Martha is gritty, coarse and exhilarating. Martha Wainwright is an instant classic that introduces a truly original new voice to the world.

Contact Pop Arts reporter Jason C. LeRoy at [email protected].