Angels With Dirty Mouths 

Kathleen Edwards and Martha Wainwright demonstrate the power of the real F-word: fearlessness

Kathleen Edwards and Martha Wainwright demonstrate the power of the real F-word: fearlessness

Kathleen Edwards

Back to Me (Zoe/Rounder)

Playing 3rd & Lindsley May 15

Martha Wainwright

Martha Wainwright (Zoe/Rounder)

Surely no one is shocked to hear a woman drop the F-bomb anymore. In fact, no one seems shocked to hear the vice president drop it. So hey, what the fuck?

No, these days effective cursing is all about context, especially for women. Lil' Kim can pile on more expletives than Chris Rock at a Lenny Bruce tribute show, and it hardly registers because she's doing so over a thumping beat in a genre known for salty talk. Contrast compels—it's more intriguing when, say, Liz Phair sings the salacious "Flower" as sweetly as a hymn.

So when a sensitive singer-songwriter like Kathleen Edwards or Martha Wainwright nonchalantly tosses out an expletive between strums of an acoustic guitar—as both do often and well—the result is a jarring sense of intimacy. It's only the most obvious marker of a lyrical stance predicated on taking the listener into total confidence. Just as each will float a harsh epithet or a startling sexual image into a lyric midstream, each just as offhandedly lets slip dark, sometimes frightening urges and impulses. Edwards and Wainwright create gripping listening from the thoughts most of us would prefer to keep to ourselves.

This could all be annoyingly self-indulgent, if both women weren't so skillful. The alienation in Edwards' songs in particular is sketched with careful discipline, the deployment of simple, vivid phrases to describe complex emotions. Throughout her second album, Back to Me, she nervously measures the gaping mental distance between herself and those around her.

Occasionally, the resulting pain and rage build up and burst into the open. As "What Are You Waiting For" begins, Edwards is empathetically cataloging her shortcomings to a skeptical mate. By the end, her patience with him has evaporated: "You say you like me in your memory / You've got to be fucking kidding me." In "Copied Keys," she realizes with horror that she's allowed her own personality to be submerged in a relationship, and you know she won't need those keys for much longer. We find the long-suffering protagonist of "In State" making the decision to drop the dime on her ne'er-do-well boyfriend.

"In State" is a neat trick that bodes for Edwards' development as a songwriter: it's a prequel to "Six O'clock News," from her 2003 debut, Failer. Far from cheapening its predecessor, "In State" sheds new light on the characters and adds a satisfying twist. Although she rarely delves into such explicit storytelling, the stance of the lead character of both songs is a familiar one for Edwards: a woman too smart for most of the men she's drawn to, and whose vinegar way with the truth dooms relations with the rest.

Back to Me, like many second albums recorded after a long road stint, is musically flintier than Failer, and the lyrics reflect that change. On the title cut, Edwards brags of the arsenal of tricks she'll use to recapture a wandering lover, even allowing herself a dirty joke: "I've got ways to make you come," followed by a short, deliberate pause before "back to me." All the while, though, Edwards transmits the weakness beneath this bravado, the way in which the singer is trying to convince herself of the truth of her words, with the album's deepest groove pushing her past any nagging doubts. (She is, as Elvis Costello once sang, "tough and transparent as armored glass.") "Gimme a bet and I'll take it," she sings in "Independent Thief": "I've got 20 bucks that says I'm gonna make it." Sounds like another bluff, but it wouldn't be wise to bet against her.

Failer felt like the announcement of a major talent, and Back to Me meets the expectations such a splash inevitably raises. Martha Wainwright, who at 29 is three years Edwards' senior, knows a thing or two about the weight of expectations. She has admitted that one reason she took so long in committing to a solo career was the intimidation of following the path of her famous father (Loudon Wainwright III), mother (Kate McGarrigle) and brother (Rufus Wainwright, who appears on two tracks here).

Wainwright has been taking tentative steps toward center stage for a while—an EP in 1999, followed by another, Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole, last year. Several songs on her self-titled full-length debut originated with those EPs, further suggesting the careful deliberation in her character; clearly, she is not one to waste a good song. But Martha Wainwright marks a dive into the deep end after years of toe-dipping. "You say that my time here has been some sort of joke / That I've been messing around," she notes in "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole," a jibe pointed at her father.

Wainwright is just as likely to aim the weapon at herself. In the first verse of "This Life," she muses idly about the dullness of her existence; in the second, she whispers that if things get intolerable, "I got the gun for my head." She never returns to the topic, leaving the image to hang over the rest of the song—over all the songs, in fact. It isn't the only moment on Martha Wainwright that feels like a wandering late-night conversation by candlelight, replete with details the speaker hopes will be forgotten by morning.

That those words linger owes much to the impressionistic verve in Wainwright's lyrics, the carefully adorned music that accompanies them and, especially, the revelatory voice with which she sings them. Wainwright can sound as teasingly sweet as the Sundays' Harriet Wheeler, then swing into a whiskey-sour rasp that recalls Marianne Faithfull or punctuate a thought with a theatrical flourish worthy of her brother Rufus. Each shift is calculated to suit each lyric's moment and meaning. Witness how, in "Far Away," she shudders "I don't care" like the sneeze of an elderly socialite, or the way she repeats particular phrases, letting them dance giddily on her tongue before letting them fly away. "There's a song, there's a song, there's a song, it's in my head," she sings in "This Life," as if scrambling to remember that tune.

Wainwright is never more compelling than when unraveling the implications of her gender. "Ball & Chain" is an emasculating kiss-off from a scorned lover ("You're all the same, with your balls and your chains"), complete with mocking shred-metal hammer-ons from guitarist Cameron Greider. Still, on "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole," she blurts, "I wish I was born a man...so I could learn how to stand up for myself."

In that instant, Wainwright seems to believe this, but everything surrounding the sentiment proves its pointlessness. Wainwright's songs, like Edwards', gather power from a uniquely feminine self-analysis that parses weaknesses and strengths while clinging to an innate faith that revealing weakness is itself strength enough. That's an act of bravery the men in their lives, like that guy "In State" or that "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole," can't quite seem to manage. Fuck 'em.

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