Why it’s daunting: Imagine Thanksgiving dinner, only everyone has a guitar, a razor-sharp wit, and a major chip on his or her shoulder, and you’ll have a sense what it’s like picking out the autobiographical crosscurrents in what Time’s David Browne called “the first family of reality folk-pop.” Wainwright, whose marriage to Kate McGarrigle begat Rufus and Martha, is the son of a columnist for Life magazine, and as he told The A.V. Club in 2010, “my best songs… they’re almost journalistic,” which is to say they capture the good and the bad in unflinching and unvarnished detail. Multiply that times four for every family quarrel, and you’ve got several sprawling decades’ worth of disparate but interlocking oeuvres that grow more uncomfortable the closer you listen.
Possible gateway: Loudon Wainwright III, 40 Odd Years
Why: Given that we’re talking about four distinct artists, there are at least as many places to start, and the even-handed choice would be something like 1998’s The McGarrigle Hour, a family confab that features performances by mom, dad, the kids, and aunt Anna, with friends like Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt along to keep the peace. But in blood feuds, there are no neutral parties, so let’s choose sides. 40 Odd Years, released earlier this year, is Wainwright’s first career-spanning collection—part memoir, part family album, and part poison-pen letter. Songs like “Westchester County” and “White Winos” detail Wainwright’s privileged upbringing with melancholy alacrity, while “The Swimming Song,” used to great effect in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid And The Whale, evokes the thrill of childhood as well as its dangers.
Marital discord arrives by disc one, track five, “Saw Your Name In The Paper,” in which Wainwright manages to construe his wife’s positive notices as a rebuke to his own aspirations. The high, thin voice in which he sings is awfully close to a whine, as if he knows how pathetic and small his feelings are but can’t help it all the same. Rufus arrives with “Dilated To Meet You” and “Be Careful, There’s A Baby In The House” (sadly, “Rufus Is A Tit Man” is not included here), and the walls start to cave in not long after. On “Whatever Happened To Us?” he sings, “Hey push led to shove / we fell out of love / we tore each other apart.” He breaks the news of their divorce to the kids on “Your Mother And I” and looks back on the wreckage from a year’s distance in “Unhappy Anniversary.”
There’s plenty more about the difficulties of single parenting and the joys of bachelorhood, but it’s worth looking up one particularly glaring omission: “Hitting You,” from Wainwright’s 1992 album, History. Written when Martha was a teenager, the song looks back at a history of Wainwright blowing his cool, focusing on a particularly shameful incident in which he dealt a powerful smack to his rambunctious daughter’s thigh. It’s a song that makes you deplore his actions even as you admire his honesty—which is to say he’s got you right where he wants you. History also makes a great single-disc intro to Wainwright’s oeuvre, as does the live album Career Moves.
Next steps: Time for the distaff point of view. The new collection Tell My Sister (released, naturally, on the same day as 40 Odd Years) encompasses Kate & Anna’s self-titled debut, the follow-up, Dancer With Bruised Knees, and a full disc of rough versions that strip away some of the albums’ occasionally rococo arrangements. The previously unreleased “Work Song” recalls a childhood rich in folk songs, doubling as a nostalgic appreciation and a potent critique of the titular genre. (In other words, they know it’s strange for two white girls from Québec to have fond memories of singing “Camptown Races” around the hearth.) “Saratoga Summer Song,” an oldie that only surfaced after Kate’s death in January of 2010, is a bleak reminiscence of college breaks lost to sex, drugs, and tennis matches, while “Complainte Pour Ste-Catherine” sketches the streets of Montréal in ice-etched detail.
Tell My Sister only covers the years from 1971 to 1977, but there’s still plenty of family turmoil: Kate reluctantly lets Wainwright back in the door on “Blues In D,” then kicks him out with “Go Leave.” (“She will make it last longer / That’s nice for you.”) Anna beckons her sister to the bosom of the family with “Kitty Come Home,” while Kate looks to the road ahead on “Come A Long Way.”
Musically speaking, Rufus has charted his own course, handily outselling both parents with swoony, theatrical records like 2001’s Poses, 2003’s Want One, and 2004’s Want Two. (True to form, the elder Wainwright hasn’t put much effort into hiding his resentment.) You can read Rufus’ cover of his dad’s “One Man Guy,” from Poses, as a rebuttal to the loner’s manifesto, but by recruiting his father and sister to harmonize on the track, he turns it into a kind of wistful reconciliation. Like it or not, they share things they’ll never be able to escape. (The version here is performed with Martha and fellow folk scion Teddy Thompson.)
“Dinner At Eight,” from Want One, is less sanguine. “Those old magazines got us started up again,” Rufus admits, blaming the media for fanning the flames of father-son competition before admitting, “Actually, it was probably me again.” While the music is drifting and sweet, his words are steel: “I’m gonna break you down and see what you’re worth / what you’re really worth to me.”
But that’s nothing compared to the frontal assault Martha mounts on “BMFA,” from her self-titled first album. The title stands for “bloody motherfucking asshole,” and should there be any doubt who she means, try this on for size: “You have no idea how it feels / to be on your own / in your own home / with the fucking phone / and the mother of gloom… with her hand in your head.” The song’s simple acoustic-guitar strum puts it squarely on her father’s musical turf, and the fact that she used it as the title track of her first EP indicates a pretty firm desire to rub her dad’s nose in it. Apparently rebuking the paternal assertion that her music is just a passing phase, “some sort of incubating period,” she’s determined to at once cast off his influence and beat him at his own game—musically speaking. (Martha’s second album, I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too, does a much better job of establishing her own territory, and dials down the intra-familial sniping as well.)
Rufus’ “Martha,” from last year’s All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu, puts a tragic period on the end of the family’s sentence. Echoing “Kitty Come Home,” the song calls sister north to see their dying mother, begging her to put aside family strife for a final reconciliation. “There’s not much time for us to really be that angry at each other, anymore” he warns, leaving the last of several unanswered messages. He’s singing to his sister, but he’s the only one listening.
Where not to start: Rufus’ Does Judy At Carnegie Hall and Martha’s import-only Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, À Paris are album-length tributes to their music forbears; the former recreates Judy Garland’s legendary 1961 concert, while the latter features 15 songs plucked from the Edith Piaf canon. Both are fine in their own right, though the former feels a little too much like a drag-show exercise, but they’re apt to give incautious listeners the wrong idea about just where the Wainwright children are coming from.