Martha Wainwright | Pittsburgh City Paper

Martha Wainwright

Martha Wainwright

Yes, this is that Martha Wainwright. Surely, it's only fair to consider her musical pedigree: Daughter of folk legends Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle. Sister of Rufus. But no, she isn't taking a ride on anyone's coattails. Not even close. Seriously. Not even close.


Although it is true that throughout the 28-year-old singer-songwriter's debut album, Wainwright does manage to take something of a cue from her brother, who is arguably just as well known for his weepy, confessional-style lyrics as for the manner in which those lyrics are delivered. Martha, it turns out, lays claim to a bit of a confessional streak herself. But as a critic writing in Mother Jones recently noted, "Where [Rufus] prefers elegance, [Martha] seems constantly on the verge of a primal scream."


I couldn't have put it better myself. Martha Wainwright, in fact, is essentially catharsis writ large. It isn't just an astonishingly catchy folk record that occasionally rocks. It's also a messy roller-coaster ride of family anxieties and sexual insecurities, all of them skillfully woven through Wainwright's raspy smoker's voice. Think Karen Carpenter meets Tori Amos. Or maybe folk star Maria Muldaur meets Martha's own mother. Any way you slice it, Martha Wainwright (and for that matter, Martha Wainwright) is an absolute original, and full-to-overflowing with all the adjectives and qualifiers that such an absolute original demands: There's a purely celestial moment halfway through the album's opening track, for instance, that will literally raise the hair on the back of your neck. (Use headphones and turn your player up loud; if you don't hear it, check for a pulse.)


The other dozen compositions seem to weave and meld together with the oddest of juxtapositions; Wainwright's voice is irresistible and her pitch perfect. But her lyrics are the wrenching stuff of juvenilia -- Martha Wainwright could be a particularly poignant episode of Loveline, scored for the stage and mixed with soothing background vocals and a plinking piano.


 "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole," a poem written for Wainwright's father, is (big surprise) the disc's emotional heavyweight. ("And you have no idea / No idea how it feels to be on your own / In your own home / With the fucking phone / And the mother of gloom / In your bedroom / Standing over your head / With her hand in your head.") But a half-dozen others come close: The gorgeously toned "G.P.T." seems to be a true story of date rape, or worse. "Factory" manages to reference transsexualism by the second verse. And I don't have anywhere near enough space to get into "Ball & Chain," but I will say that if you've recently been cheated on, it's your new anthem. (Trust me.)


In a recent interview with The Independent, a British daily, Wainwright suggested that the core difference between her and the rest of her very talented family concerns her intrinsic ability to rock. And that suggests just where the brilliance of her debut resides, which is somewhere between the quiet spaces and the loud. In other words? It's everywhere.