Review

1976's T Shirt was Loudon Wainwright III's first album for Arista Records, and marked his third major-label deal in six years. With this in mind, T Shirt occasionally sounds as if Wainwright was trying to give the label something it could actually market -- backed by the band Slowtrain, Wainwright pulls off a few credible stabs at rock & roll, such as "Bicentennial" and "California Prison Blues," and even delivers a genuinely funky disco number, "At Both Ends." Of course, the minute any radio programmer heard the lyrics to any of these songs, the jig would have been up: "Bicentennial" is a cynical celebration of America's birthday that pays homage to Jack Ruby and Audie Murphy, while "California Prison Blues" includes shout-outs to would-be presidential assassin Squeaky Fromme and her friend Charles Manson, and "At Both Ends" celebrates all manner of sexual and chemical debauchery. Which is to say this is a Loudon Wainwright III album, full of acidly witty tunes whose humor never quite gets in the way of his industrial-strength cynicism. Wainwright also embraced his inner drunk on this album, celebrating the joys of booze on "Prince Hal's Dirge" and the two-part "Wine with Dinner" (where he's thoughtful enough to namecheck role models Dean Martin and Foster Brooks), and those who prefer their Wainwright acoustic can content themselves with the old-timey "Hollywood Hopeful" and the solo "Just Like President Thieu." And as if Wainwright figured his fans could use a break from the rancor at the half-way point, side two kicks off with a genuinely joyous tribute to a loyal four-legged friend, "Hey Packy." T Shirt isn't as resonant as Wainwright's best music, but it's a better album than its reputation would lead you to expect, and proves he can rock out when he's in the mood, even if it isn't his greatest talent. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi

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