I admit that it’s been quite a few years – decades, perhaps – since I listened to Loudon Wainwright III, but I suspect that even if I’d been more au fait with his 21st century output, the album I’d Rather Lead A Band, scheduled for release on October 9th 2020, would come as a surprise. Instead of his own songs, he’s chosen to interpret a set of songs from the 1920s/30s, and instead of using his own guitar for accompaniment, he has collaborated as singer and bandleader with Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks and producer/music supervisor Randall Poster. The instrumentation has a decidedly period feel with an emphasis on brass and reeds, but keeps its promise of presenting a “loose, fresh, anti-nostalgic take” on the Great American Songbook that feels a million miles from Rod Stewart or Ella Fitzgerald, or even Harry Nilsson.
- ‘How I Love You (I’m Tellin’ the Birds, Tellin’ the Bees)’ is a 20s-ish song by Lew Brown and Cliff Friend. I was slightly reminded of the Temperance Seven instrumentally, but Wainwright’s vocals avoid self-conscious pastiche.
- ‘Ship Without A Sail’ is a Rogers and Hart song from the 1929 musical Heads Up! – Wainwright sounds a little strained on the high notes, but it’s a nice song and an affecting performance.
- ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ (Andy Razaf, Fats Waller, Harry Brooks) does justice to a classic song. And it’s really rather nice to hear sings of this vintage where the whole song is sung, rather than the singer going straight into the verse.
- There’s something about the innuendo-rich ‘I’m Going To Give It To Mary With Love’ that would fit straight into a classic Loudon Wainwright III set. However, it was written by Cliff Edwards and first recorded in the 1930s.
- ‘The Little Things in Life’ is an Irving Berlin song recorded by Bing Crosby in the 1930s. Not one of my favourite songs, but a solid performance.
- ‘So the Bluebirds and the Blackbirds Got Together’ was also recorded by Crosby with Paul Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys – written, I think, by fellow Rhythm Boy Harry Barris. Not my favourite song either, but an attractive arrangement.
- ‘A Perfect Day’ is not, of course, the Lou Reed song you couldn’t get away from in 1997 because of the charity single, but a ‘parlour song’ written by Carrie Jacobs-Bond in 1909, and a pleasant example of the sort of thing a musical household might have sung around the piano. Though the first half line does remind me resistibly of ‘When You Come To The End Of A Lollipop’: fortunately, most of you probably aren’t old enough to remember that particular earworm.
- ‘I Thought About You’, by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Mercer, has been recorded by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, among others, and that’s tough competition. Still, Wainwright takes it at a suitably swinging pace and doesn’t disgrace himself vocally. Until I heard his version of ‘You Rascal You’ this was my favourite track. Sadly, he doesn’t sing the first few lines on this one, but then nor did Sinatra.
- ‘I’d Rather Lead A Band’ is another song by Irving Berlin, probably most associated with Fred Astaire. This version compares very well.
- ‘My Blue Heaven’ was written by Walter Donaldson and George Whiting, and was used in the Ziegfield Follies of 1927. This version has more of a 50s feel, and for me, at any rate, all the better for it.
- Early versions of Harold Arlen’s ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’ (lyrics by Ted Koehler) include Cab Calloway’s and Louis Armstrong’s, and this version swings appropriately.
- I can’t now hear ‘Heart and Soul’, by Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser, without thinking of Niles and Daphne in Frasier chopping vegetables, but this is a perfectly sound version.
- Sam Theard’s ‘You Rascal You (I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead)’ has been recorded by a glorious miscellany of jazz and blues singers, but it really suits Wainright’s voice and delivery. On reflection, this is my favourite track.
- Frank Loesser’s ‘More I Cannot Wish You’ comes from Guys And Dolls: it’s sentimental but not mawkish, and Wainwright’s straightforward delivery makes for a satisfying end to the set.
Until this CD came through my letterbox, I hadn’t really thought about Loudon Wainwright III as a singer: I suppose his vocal chops have always been overshadowed by his extraordinary songwriting. But I’m pleasantly surprised: he may not be a Sinatra or Bennett, but if he’d been singing material like this years ago he could certainly have made it as a band singer. And especially with a band of this quality. While there are moments early on where the arrangements are a tiny bit too 20s-oompah for my taste, most of the arrangements have more of a big band vibe, which is fine by me. As long as you aren’t expecting material like ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Cry’ or ‘Delaware When I Was Younger’ (I told you I hadn’t listened to him for a while!) or even the dead skunk thing, I think you might be pleasantly surprised too. It’s certainly not folk, if that matters to you, but I won’t stop listening to I’d Rather Lead A Band just because I’ve finished the review.
Artist’s website: www.lw3.com/
‘Ship Without A Sail’: