By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Loudon Wainwright III has made a career of family albums. For nearly four decades, the singer-songwriter has churned out sometimes bitter, sometimes brutal, often hilarious folk songs about his marriage to Canadian singer Kate McGarrigle and their two children: Gen-X piano man Rufus Wainwright and emerging talent Martha Wainwright.
Everyone has had his or her moment, willingly or not, in Loudon's spotlight — songs about his and Kate's divorce, songs about explaining it to the kids, songs about family vacations, songs about his own parents, even "Rufus Is a Tit Man," a song about watching young Rufus breastfeed (and only slightly ironic, given that his son, now an acclaimed composer, turned out to be gay). Loudon and Martha even sang a duet, "Father/Daughter Dialogue," on one of Loudon's '90s discs, in which they addressed the irresistible peril of making dirty laundry tuneful and rhymed.
But turnabout, as they say, is fair play. So thought Martha, anyway, when she wrote and recorded her first single, "BMFA." It's not actually called by that acronym; we couldn't print the full title in a wholesome, family newspaper. The first two words are "Bloody Mother," and the other two are the popular "Deadwood" f-word adjective and an anatomical noun.
And it's directed at her dad.
"My father's made a career out of singing about family members — some kind, some not so kind. So we Wainwrights have carte blanche to return the favor," Martha said recently from a tour stop in Bristol, England. "I think he understands. He's never said anything about it outright. It's not designed to hurt his feelings. It's just a funny thing to say about somebody. I didn't intend to say those four words when I was writing it. They just came out, and I thought it was hilarious, quite frankly. Mostly young women seem to identify with it, not necessarily about their dads — but everyone has that person they want to say that about in their lives."
That title, and her insistent repetition of it toward the end of her acoustic-driven wail, earned her self-titled debut disc a parental-advisory sticker, a rare badge for a folk singer, when it was released last month. "We live in such conservative times," she said with a sigh.
Martha, 28, has been active in the Wainwright family way since childhood — singing with her mother from an early age and backing up Rufus since his successful debut in the late '90s — but for years, she resisted the temptations and requests to record her own debut. "In a way, I wasn't champing at the bit to make a record," she said. "There was so much pressure to make a good first record in a family like mine. So there was definitely a conscious delay."
Plus, about the time she started thinking seriously about her own music, Rufus' career took off. As his performance schedule thickened, he brought Martha along to sing backup. Their duets, often on French chansons, were the highlight of many concerts. But while the steady work helped spread her name around, it also hampered Martha's own ambitions, ambivalent though they sometimes were.
"I got to live vicariously through my brother, the experiences he had as an up-and-coming artist. I wouldn't say that it satisfied my want of those experiences, but I got exposed to it. It taught me the amount of work required if you want to succeed," she said. "It taught me to sing better, too. Rufus wrote parts for me that were very unnatural and different."
This is when Martha began discussing her voice, both literally and figuratively, as the major cause for her late bloom. The Wainwright family is crowded with distinctive physical and lyrical voices — Kate's measured control and traditional dignity, Loudon's tongue-in-cheek wit and naked admissions, Rufus' warm murmuring and allusions of grandeur — so Martha had intense competition before she even left the house. Before stepping out with the family name on her product, she wanted to make sure listeners would hear the Martha more than the Wainwright.
"I've always had a very defined singing voice," she said in a sandy speaking tone, just faintly hoarse. "The cigarettes don't help. Or maybe they do. You can usually pick me out of a chorus. ... So I always had this voice, and the interest in the songs I was writing. I've written basically the same way since I was 18. In the last six years, living a full life in New York City and on the road with Rufus, I think I've gotten better. The way I do it didn't change much at heart, it just got better. And I realized this might really be what I want to do, where maybe before I wasn't sure. I always felt this was handed to me as the youngest, and I think once I felt secure in my voice, I made the time to let it be heard."
There were moments when she wasn't sure about this career choice, certainly. She studied French theater in school and thought that perhaps the best way to distance herself from the Wainwright musical legacy was to pursue something other than music. But in the end, she said, music felt the most natural, and she caved in to the destiny of her DNA.
"I mean, there was a time when that was how I was going to rebel — by not being a musician," she said. "That would have hurt the family most, I think. When people ask about 'BMFA,' they say, 'How could you write such a thing?' But in our family, the real way to hurt someone would be to not write the song about it. That's the particular Wainwright dynamic, I guess."
Given that song's particular invective, does she get along with Dad?
"That's a good question, actually," she said. "We've always had a lot of similarities. We both see that, I think. We recognize each other in each other. And, really, that's a good feeling. It causes problems sometimes, but there are not many people on the planet you have that with. We like to spend time together, taking long walks or out on the sailboat. We're able to take our mind off the music and just sort of live."
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
Phone: (312) 559-1212
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
'Star Trek: Enterprise'
When: 8 p.m. Friday, WPWR-Channel 50
Starring: Scott Bakula, Connor Trinneer, Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis, Jolene Blalock, Jeffrey Combs
When "Star Trek: Enterprise" debuted four years ago as the fifth prime-time incarnation of the venerable sci-fi franchise, trouble was evident in the first few minutes: The opening theme was a Diane Warren song.
The blockbuster songwriter — who's penned huge hits for Celene Dion, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Michael Botlon, even (shudder) Milli Vanilli — wrote "Faith of the Heart," which plays over the opening credits along with images of humankind's various achievements in exploration, from the H.M.S. Enterprise to the international space station to the starship Enterprise. The lyrics are typical Warren treacle, full of horrid cliches and vague hopes, promising "a change in the wind" and a chorus questioning "where my heart will take me," whatever that means.
And that's exactly what doomed "Enterprise" three seasons earlier than its "Trek" predecessors ("The Next Generation," "Voyager" and "Deep Space Nine"): We were never offered anything for our hearts — or even our heads — to have faith in.
That shortcoming remains crystalline-entity clear in the series finale of UPN's "Enterprise," airing in a two-part episode beginning at 8 p.m. Friday on WPWR-Channel 50. While other "Trek" franchises have ended with poignant, grand gestures, "Enterprise" wraps up with a whimper as one character — resurrected from another series — attempts to rediscover his own "faith of the heart."
Recognizing that none of the characters in "Enterprise" were ever interesting enough to carry such a weighty episode on their own (a fault of the show's indecisive writing, not of the actors' genuinely engaging performances), franchise curators Rick Berman and Brannon Braga jettison their creation by bringing back a couple of reliable "Trek" heavyweights. The "Enterprise" finale focuses on a dilemma faced by Cmdr. William Riker (the stalwart and sensitive Jonathan Frakes) during a particular episode of "The Next Generation." As he struggles with a decision — he's questioning who to place his faith in — he seeks the usually useless counsel of Troi (Marina Sirtis) and uses the holodeck (a virtual-reality playpen that's been indispensable throughout the franchise) to investigate what happened when the first Enterprise crew wrapped up its service.
Premise was brotherhood
In typical time-bending fashion, this last "Enterprise" event takes place six years in the future, as Earth prepares to join 18 other planets in an alliance called the United Federation of Planets. This Space Age telescoping of the United Nations was series creator Gene Rodenberry's institutionalized notion of universal (literally) brotherhood. It was the source of the core values for each series, namely the "prime directive" (basically: don't speak to another species unless spoken to). "Enterprise" was supposed to be laying the foundation for that great achievement, making a case for how and why humanity established itself as the hub of intergalactic peace and harmony.
Four years of "Enterprise," however, have only shown us a bunch of sleekly uniformed humans covering their own butts. Midway through the series, the story line suddenly shifted radically, a painfully obvious reaction to plummeting ratings and UPN execs crying, "Give us an enemy! We need a Borg! Pander! Pander!" (This was also about the time they added rock guitars to Warren's opening theme, giving a mild edge to the sappy tune.)
In the first season, there was a nebulous, uncertain threat from a time-traveling shadow figure with a spooky deep voice who only appeared occasionally; by the third season the time-traveling was completely abandoned (whither the Suliban?) for a protracted battle against a faraway species called the Xindi who were — for some reason, never quite clear — building a Death Star-type weapon, which they intended to schlepp halfway across the galaxy in order to obliterate Earth. An entire season-and-a-half was wasted on this save-the-planet cliche, the conclusion of which was almost entirely implied — and then the Xindi were never mentioned again. It's as if Mr. Nielsen himself were producing the scripts.
They're only human
Mixed in there was the occasional comic relief (John Billingsley as Dr. Phlox has been an underappreciated treasure) and the inevitable, laughably subdued sexual tension (Braga's trademark distracting influence). We humans bickered with the Vulcans, debated with the Xindi and argued with the Andorians. Our motives always seemed more selfish than selfless.
So it's no surprise that this finale fast-forwards several years to the historic moment of unity. We're to assume that eventually the Enterprise crew tapped into some altruism and leadership, and that humanity became worthy of founding the grand and glorious Federation.
Add to this failure the natural incongruity of a prequel made more than 30 years and countless special-effects advancements after its origin, and it's really no wonder the audience boldly went. George Lucas has struggled with this same quandary in his "Star Wars" prequels. It's asking a lot of any audience to look at the stunning effects of recent "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" productions and reconcile them with the cardboard sets and bad blue screens of the originals. Really, I mean, look at that fancy, techno-savvy bridge on "Enterprise" — they went from that to the featureless set James T. Kirk stalked in the '60s?
That's a lot of disbelief to suspend.
"Enterprise" tries to be arch with several in-jokes throughout this episode — "Here's to the next generation," Capt. Archer (Scott Bakula) salutes over a glass of scotch — but even those can't overcome the purely pointless plot. The Andorian Shran returns (he's not dead, after all, but don't expect a satisfying explanation), and he needs the crew's help to save his daughter, who's been kidnapped by ... no one in particular. So that's the last mission of the first starship Enterprise: getting all Kojak on some nameless space thugs. One of the Enterprise crew dies, too — in the most anticlimactic and dramatically pointless death in the history of the franchise.
It's a deflation of, not a triumphant conclusion to, the series and the bandwagon — for a while, anyway. In the end, of course, Riker learns to have faith in the right person (we've already seen it play out in "The Next Generation"), but the first Enterprise crew scatters with little evidence of where their hearts will take them. So much for boldness in going.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
When New Order finished playing "Transmission" — a quirky song by New Order's doomed, post-punk predecessor, Joy Division — singer Bernard Sumner hissed and said, "Enough of that rock s---! We want you to start dancing!" And, true to the band's hits-heavy set, they launched into "True Faith" as if it were a brand-new nightclub sensation.
Like most of the set Tuesday night at the Aragon Ballroom, these were songs they seemed obliged to play. God forbid a New Order concert should pass without "True Faith," "Bizarre Love Triangle" and the requisite Joy Division chestnut.
But during "Transmission," something happened that makes New Order shows still worth seeing after (gulp) a quarter of a century. This band — a British outfit we sometimes know more from dance floors and John Hughes movie soundtracks — actually rocked. Sumner matched the songs' quaint but deceptively foreboding mood with uncharacteristic growling and gurgling (it's a bit low for his range), while bassist Peter Hook barked and shrieked randomly. And for a few minutes, the New Order experience was about pogoing and pumping fists rather than twirling and dancing. Post-punk, indeed.
Tuesday's energetic show was spiced with such moments. Given that the band's live incarnation is a genuine guitar-bass-drums-vocals quartet, the occasional use of pre-recorded synthesizers and beats seemed surprisingly intrusive. The best songs were those that allowed guitarist Phil Cunningham to cut loose ("Regret," "Crystal") and let Hook show off his chiming namesake hooks in soloing poses at the edge of the stage (nearly every song, but especially the new "Hey Now What You Doing" and the opener, "Love Vigilantes").
Hook was manic, and once again he proved to be an invaluable asset in the band's attack — something not said about many bass players. Looking like a bedraggled Alan Rickman, Hook prowled the spotlight all night, plucking out the alarmingly simple bass melodies that make New Order, like so many of the British bands from that early '80s era, sound as good in concert and on the dance floor as it does in the car or on an iPod. Sometimes he's providing the groove, sometimes he's taking the melody, often he's doing both.
Again, this magic peaked during a Joy Division song, the classic "Love Will Tear Us Apart." It had its typically lumbering moments, but when Hook stopped bellowing indecipherably, dropped the melody and started grinding into his black bass next to drummer Stephen Morris' explosive kit, the two sparked some crackling fire, which Hook tamed to the end with an absurd but wildly cheered one-note solo back at stage's edge.
Sumner introduced all the songs — no suspense, no pretensions — cracked jokes and thanked Chicago for waiting 12 years since the band's last local show. And, really, it's that down-to-earth attitude that makes New Order still so engaging at this late date. The band didn't break new ground, by any means, but it rocked — no extended remix required.
at the Aragon Ballroom
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.