Strange Weirdos: Music from and Inspired by the Film Knocked Up suffices as the soundtrack for Judd Apatow's 2007 summer comedy. Unlike so many recordings that are "music from and inspired by the film," this one actually serves as both a soundtrack and as Loudon Wainwright III's new album. Co-produced by Wainwright and Joe Henry, the album boasts an all-star cast that includes bassist David Pilch, Greg Leisz, Van Dyke Parks, Patrick Warren, Richard Thompson, and others. According to Apatow's liner notes, he saw Wainwright perform "Grey in L.A." and asked him to record a version without words. Wainwright, in London at the time, asked if he could use Thompson. Wainwright was also working on his own album with Henry and suggested him as a co-collaborator. The music from the songs on the album other than two songs, "Grey in L.A." and the album's second track, play as the beginning and end credits of the film. The rest of the songs were used with their lyrics stripped out as incidental music. So here are the songs that Wainwright and Henry cut, vocals and all. There are two covers on the set, Peter Blegvad's "Daughter," and Mose Allison's "Feel So Good." Henry contributed a couple of instrumentals in the atmospheric "Ypsilanti," and the gorgeous Parks and band ballad "Naomi." Wainwright also re-cut "Lullaby," a song from a 1973 album. He and Henry co-wrote "You Can't Fail M e Now," and the loose, raggedy blues "So Much to Do." Those are the mechanics.
It's a two-for-one deal as a soundtrack and a new Wainwright album. As such, it's his best material in years; in more than a decade, actually. It's focused, adventurous, and alternately lush and to the bone. The band plays like a band, the songs have no extra baggage lyrically or musically, and walks many musical lines without ever crossing over into any one genre for too long. Wainwright's as wry as ever, but without the caustic bitterness that can plague some of his best work. Which is funny here, because it is genuine and reveals more of the artist's aesthetic personality than many of his more recent recordings do. In other words, Wainwright comes across as completely unmasked, and he's having the time of his life. The way these players interact together, even when it is with a string section who are none other than the Section Quartet, feels organic, inseparable from the body of the composition or the grain in the singer's voice. Strange Weirdos may have an outrageous title, but these songs are anything but. Check out the daytime reflections of "Valley Morning," where the protagonist watches, muses and reflects on love as all this goes on. In the song, the protagonist is on the edge, but he doesn't know of what. He's been torn up a bit by life fleeting by as his desperation turns to resignation: "...But life is a movie out here in the valley/What else were we thinking of?"
In the wooly B-3 organ drenched gospel of "X or Y" is a sly reflection of childbirth and how acceptance of the gender of a child is all taken care of, so stress is useless, why worry? It's either gonna be a girl or a boy. It's hilarious and wise in its folksy way. Predetermination never sounded so useless or silly. Wainwright and Henry would probably both bristle at the term "poetic," but it's the only way to describe a love song that is as brutally honest and desperate as "You Can't Fail Me Now." With acoustic guitars, mandolin, piano and strings to a slow, shuffling Bellerose beat, Wainwright sings: "I lost the thread among the vines/And hung myself in story lines/That tell the tales I never would allow/God knows the name of every bird/That fills my angry words/But you know all my secret heart avows...We're taught to love, the worst of us/And mercy more than life, but trust me:/Mercy's just a warning shot across the bow/I live for yours/And You can't fail me now/I live for your mercy/And you can't fail me now." It's a prayer to the Beloved and a prayer from the bottom; from the wracked halls of brokenness that can shatter the human heart. To the skittering mandolin and strings, this plea for mercy isn't based on anything but the vulnerability that only intimacy can give us the permission to confess. Strange Weirdos is a small testament to the loopy, lopsided journey of love in life. In Wainwright's world here, love -- flawed, selfish, open, disillusioned, frightened and above all comical, no matter how complex or tragic it is -- is all there is, whether it be familial or romantic, or even ideological, it's what we have in the sum total: either too much, too little, or none at all. We either desire it with the core of our beings, or we wish to be out of it and walk away, or we are so fully in it we glimpse the secrets of the world. And it is so much more than we ever consider it to be because it is everything. Who would have thought that at this stage in his career, Wainwright (with help from a very empathetic co-producer in Henry whose contribution is not to be underestimated) would come up with a recording like this: a treasure chest of truly great songs that communicate so effortlessly. As an album, its seamless, uncluttered, and virtually flawless.