It’s a shame that Martha Wainwright is blessed with such hypeworthy DNA. There are many other interesting, even important things to say about the Brooklyn-based, Montreal-reared singer/songwriter, but her genes won’t cooperate. Demanding obeisance, they elbow their way into the listening experience and prevent us from hearing things we might have noticed if we didn’t already know that she’s the sister of the extravagantly gifted pop visionary Rufus Wainwright and the daughter of celebrated folkies Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III. Her family tree casts a long shadow, and it’s easy to understand why she waited until she was 28 years old to release her debut full-length, why she spent years singing backup for her brother and making cameos on other people’s records, why she self-released three EPs before signing to a record label with decent marketing and distribution. A distinguished bloodline is a blessing, but, as Jakob Dylan surely would attest, it’s a mixed one.
Fortunately, Wainwright is up to the challenge. Spectacularly foulmouthed and surprisingly tender, she demands to be confronted on her own terms while effectively exploiting the complexities of her unique life story. Like both her parents and, to a lesser degree, her brother, Wainwright is a confessional songwriter whose art finds expression in the tangled, often uncomfortable truths gleaned from personal experience. The album’s emotional centerpiece, “B.M.F.A.” (it stands for something that made the suits at Rounder — and at Illinois Times — nervous, so they abbreviated it), is, by her own admission, about her father, who left the family when Martha was small. Loudon fans may cringe on his behalf, but they should remember that he wrote several not-entirely-flattering songs about her, including one about slapping her thigh.
“B.M.F.A.” is brutally, outrageously direct, but, like Sylvia Plath’s seminal poem “Daddy,” it’s not so much an attack as an affirmation of self: “You have no idea how it feels/To be on your own, in your own home/With the f****** phone, and the mother of gloom in your bedroom/Standing over your bed with her hand on your head.” As her voice escalates in intensity, she stops feeling sorry for herself and exults in her anger: “I will not pretend, I will not put on a smile/I will not say I’m all right for you when all I wanted was to be good.” She repeats the titular epithet enough times to quash any hope of future airplay, but FCC-baiting profanity isn’t what makes this song so brave. Whereas Alanis Morissette and other contemporary drama mamas have capitalized on the cathartic possibilities of female rage, Wainwright explores the more interesting outer reaches of her emotional range, confronting her own ambivalent desires and investing even the most venomous declarations with a bittersweet sympathy.
Although it’s easy to identify family resemblances — the lacerating honesty of Loudon, the tremulous grace of Kate, the larger-than-lifeness of Rufus — Wainwright combines these influences into a sound so original that it defies mere biology. Hoarse, exuberant, terrified, and terrifying, she might just as well be the love child of Edith Piaf and Bob Dylan. Her voice swoops and shrieks, a cigarette-seared yowl that erupts into unexpectedly virtuosic glissandos, subsides in weary sighs, and crackles like a telephone line in an electrical storm. Incorporating 19th-century parlor songs, French chanson, cabaret, and confrontational rock & roll, Wainwright creates a folk music for the 21st century, one that can encompass both the blistering sexual politics of “Ball and Chain” and the delicate heartbreak of “Don’t Forget.” It’s a rare and magnificent achievement, and you can bet that even the BMFA himself is proud.