Muses on family and love, socio-political observations and other “deep” thoughts while maintaining his characteristic wry sense of humor: Loudon Wainwright III’s latest album, Here Come the Choppers
You gotta love a guy like Loudon Wainwright III. He's put out 21 albums since his debut in 1970, all of them filled with heartfelt musings on life, love, family and death, as well as a whole lot of other things that he finds funny and/or strange. Occasionally, his whimsical side will bring him into the mainstream for a few months: His biggest hit was a song called “Dead Skunk,” which hit Number 16 in 1973; then, about 20 years later, he got a lot of airplay for “Talkin' New Bob Dylan,” which joked about being hailed as one of many “new Dylans” at the beginning of his career, and saluted Dylan on the occasion of his 50th birthday. Very cute. But really not what LWIII is all about, any more than seeing Proust's grocery list would clue you into his inner world. No, Wainwright is actually one of the deeper cats out there, a straight-shooter who says what he means; he does not drown the listener in opacity and convoluted metaphor. And, yes, he can be funny.
He's always surrounded himself with good musicians: Past records have included contributions from the likes of guitarists John Scofield, David Mansfield, Martin Carthy and Richard Thompson. He was married for many years to singer Kate McGarrigle, and she and her sister, Anna, appeared on a number of his albums, as did his angel-voiced New York friends The Roches. Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III are the parents of current critic's darling Rufus Wainwright, who seems to be every bit as gifted and forthright as his dad. (If you don't want your psychic history explored in song, do not become part of this family.) Loudon Wainwright III has also nurtured a fairly successful acting career in recent years, appearing on Ally McBeal, in the Tim Burton film Big Fish and the forthcoming Cameron Crowe flick, Elizabethtown. Maybe you also spotted the singing cameos of Loudon, Rufus and his sister Martha in The Aviator. No wonder Wainwright moved from New York to L.A. — increasingly, that's where his “other” career is.
Wainwright's latest album, Here Come the Choppers, is certainly among the best of his career. It's the usual folky hodgepodge of profound and witty observations and portraits. Who else could write songs about Hank Williams and the death of Mr. Rogers that might make you cry? A photo of his grandfather spurs him to speculate about his tough, ornery namesake in “Half Fist.” The title track is a surreal and paranoid vision of an L.A. constantly under surveillance — at least that's what the character in the song thinks. “My Biggest Fan” is a wry look at fame and fandom. And then there are more serious meditations like “When You Leave,” a sad but beautiful study of the emotional scarring suffered by children, spouses and lovers left behind when a relationship fizzles.
As always, Wainwright's vocals and acoustic guitar picking are strong and sure, even as they shift in tone from song to song, sometimes verse to verse. What elevates this particular batch of tunes, though, is the sympathetic and imaginative accompaniment of his “band” for this outing: New York — based Americana/jazz guitar giant Bill Frisell, pedal/lap steel guitar master (and occasional Frisell associate) Greg Leisz, acoustic and electric bassist extraordinaire David Piltch and the undisputed king of L.A. session drummers, Jim Keltner. Lee Townsend, who has produced 19 albums by Frisell (and worked with a slew of other great jazz, folk and singer/songwriter types — check out his Website at www.tonemusic.com) helmed the sessions.
He, Frisell and Leisz initially hooked up with Wainwright at a Century of Song festival that Townsend produced in Germany a few years back. Keltner had played on a LWIII record 30 years ago. Shawn Pierce, who has worked on a number of albums with Townsend, engineered the sessions. Tracking and initial overdubs were done at Mad Dog in L.A. Later, overdubs were cut at The Factory (formerly Little Mountain) in Vancouver — where Pierce lives — and mixing was done in the Vancouver studio Pierce shares with film and TV composer Patric Caird, MX Sound. The project was tracked and mixed entirely in Pro Tools|HD.
“Everything was done very quickly,” comments Pierce. “We were in the A room at Mad Dog, which has a Neve console, for about four days. We tracked them together live on the floor, one song after another. Then we moved into the studio's large rehearsal space, hauled in a bunch of gear and did a lot of our overdubs there. There's no control room in that room, so we had to baffle everything off and use headphones, but we got some really good tracks there. It was a very interesting and amazing experience to track those musicians.”
“The plan formulated by Lee Townsend was to familiarize the other players ahead of time by giving them my voice and guitar demos,” Wainwright wrote in his album notes. “Bill Frisell, natural leader that he is, wrote out some terrific charts. The band and I rehearsed for a day and then, in Nike-like fashion, we just did it.”
“The arrangements really were driven by Loudon's playing,” adds Townsend. “All the parts seemed to evolve organically out of what he does.” Instrumentally, the music is dominated by Frisell's varied and imaginative guitar colorings and the haunting sustain of Leisz's steel guitars. Capturing both was relatively straightforward, Pierce says. “When I first started working with Lee Townsend, I asked him, ‘How do you get that great Bill Frisell sound?’ And he said, ‘Man, you'll be amazed; you'll see someday. It's not that hard.’ And what I've learned the more I've worked with really good players like Frisell is how much of their sound is coming from them and how little you actually have to do [as an engineer].
“With Bill, I used a [Neumann] KM-84 about a foot-and-a-half away from each cabinet, which we had isolated in the lounge. For some of the tracks, he was using two Fender Deluxe amplifiers, and for some he used a Deluxe on one channel and a Princeton on the other, and I captured it in stereo. Occasionally, I'd move the mics around a little bit if he wanted a tighter sound or maybe a little more full-bodied. Then I'd move the mics back.”
Asked about how Frisell responds to playing a supportive role instead of being the leader, as he often is, Townsend notes, “He's the ultimate team player whether it's his album or not. He quietly elevates everything he gets involved in. That's why everyone wants to work with him.”
To capture the sound off of Leisz's amps, Pierce used “a very simple [Shure] 57 right on the cone of the amp and a [Sennheiser] 421 a little off to the side, and I blended the signals. It sounded like the classic steel sound and it also worked for his lap steel.” The signal went through the preamps in the Neve console “with no EQ, no compression,” Pierce says. “We wanted to make the album as natural and unprocessed and uncompressed as we could. So I was always thinking about ways to capture the full richness of every single instrument and feature that and not have to carve it up in the mix later.”
Pierce recorded Piltch's acoustic bass with a single TLM 103 placed right at the bridge, through a Neve preamp and a Distressor EL8 for some light compression. For the electric bass, he miked the amp with a 421, but ultimately only used the Evil Twin DI signal. Drum miking was standard: 57 on the snare, 421s on the toms, 414s overhead, but augmented with a Coles 4038 as a mono overhead. “That's something Lee really likes,” Pierce says of the Coles mic. “We ended up using it quite a bit in the mix. It gives the sound a nice texture and it mixes nicely into the stereo image of the drums.
Calexico’s Paul Niehaus adds flavor to this project with his magnificent pedal steel playing.
“Working with Keltner was amazing,” he continues. “In rehearsal, he sits there with the lyric sheet and really studies what's going on in the song and really listens to the song and thinks about how he can make his contribution. He had the lyric sheet hanging there and made little marks on it. He's not just laying down two and four; he plays very dynamically with a lot of feeling, which made it more challenging for me because he'd play it one way in rehearsal and then feel it differently every single time.”
Later at Little Mountain, Wainwright did some vocal fixes (an AKG C-12A was the vox mic of choice, run through an API preamp and an 1176) and Chris Gestrin added some tasteful B-3 and Wurlitzer parts to a few songs. But much of what's on the album is what went down live at Mad Dog. Most songs only needed a few takes; a few are even first takes. “We didn't mess too much with it,” Pierce says. “My philosophy is, if it sounds good, step away; you don't need to turn knobs. It's all about microphone choice and placement and listening carefully when you're tracking. If it's sounding great, leave it alone.”
“Everybody was extremely focused,” Townsend remarks, “and Loudon is such a lightning rod in the studio: The energy he puts out comes back to him. It was an amazingly consistent level of performance by everyone involved. It was really intense, but we also had a lot of fun.”