Sunday, November 9, 2008

Lambchop's (OH) Ohio CD (Merge Records)- a review

Lambchop has been with us for a long time now, somewhere around a decade and a half, and the progressive alt-country of their classic debut has shifted and grown with varying degrees of subtlety over the course of a slew of releases that are really starting to feel like one of the great underappreciated discographies of the last twenty years. Part of what makes them such an interesting proposition is the rather porous reality of the band, adding and subtracting members and adjusting the nature of the sound in relation to who happens to be nearby at the time. When the group was chock full of players it would often explore a lush string-based deepness that would require time to fully flower, or they could jump with all their feet into a wild synthesis of country and soul music that sounded wonderfully organic, not suffering from stiltedness for even an instant. There have been other tangents along the way, like up-tempo horn-rich yet sweetly loose vamping for instance (Your Fucking Sunny Day is a gem of a song), but the one reliable and tangible constant of the Lambchop experience has been songwriter and vocalist Kurt Wagner. And the last couple of records have seen a shift to a slimmer unit that really magnifies Wagner’s presence and gives the music a less eclectic, more concise feel. I think this development really started in earnest (they’ve always shown flashes of it, either as moments within certain tunes or for the entirety of songs when it pleased them, however) when the band was still quite large in number, with the simultaneous release of Aw Come On and No You Come On, two CDs that found the group really bearing down and cohering as a unit and shedding much of the sometimes quirky offhandedness that the band’s collective aura could inspire. Earlier albums like What Another Man Spills would often leave me with a head-shaking admiration, wondering “How do they do it?” By the release of Damaged, that sense of incredulity had evaporated and was replaced by a different type of enjoyment, that of being witness to a brilliant band who were adept at bringing great depth and often startling beauty to Wagner’s songs. And (OH) Ohio is more where that came from. This turn of events really pays some serious dividends, for Wagner is an idiosyncratic vocalist to say the least, possessing an unpolished delivery that can move into a slippery near whisper that’s still strikingly heavy, like the microphone is hanging out somewhere near his tonsils. Stick some standard strumming and plucking schmoes behind him as a backing band, and the results would be far less satisfying, because Wagner’s unusual singing style benefits quite mightily from the give and take of worthy and non-rote accompaniment and interaction, as does his singular songwriting. Nothing illustrates this better than the disc’s opener, a pretty shuffle that’s embellished with some fine guitar playing, killer femme backing vocals, and late arriving horns blowing low key and sleepy. This leads directly into one of the best songs on the record, Slipped Dissolved and Loosed, the chiming optimism of the music perfectly matching the abstraction of the lyrics and the melancholy way they’re spoken-sung. This is a recurring motif on the album, but it’s only one. Another is the handful of tracks that feature the unique mixture of Wagner’s bruised and downtrodden sensibility and the gradual musical pacing that allows for all the elements to really breathe and build: this has pretty much always been Lambchop’s main sweet spot, but it’s strikingly amplified by the increasingly intuitive musicianship. To be fair, the band has always been loaded with great players, but the early albums in particular lacked the aroma of constant practice, though with so many people contributing, a major amount of practice would seem predetermined. Dare I say that the more players a band includes, the more practice would be required, and possibly that’s one reason why the size of the group has decreased since the Come On double-dip. The increased assurance (the word perfect springs to mind) in their modus operandi can only be arrived at through much toil, and the elevated punch of their sound and the increased focus on Wagner seems to benefit from a decrease in membership. All of this isn’t to imply that the music has settled on slipping into a few familiar grooves. No, there are a couple of reliable up-tempo songs to be found amongst the eleven on this disc. Sharing a Gibson with Martin Luther King Jr. and National Talk Like a Pirate Day both offer some very welcome rollicking (I was tempted to write rocking, but that might give the wrong impression) to the record’s landscape. It’s a bit early to consider which song is my personal favorite from this batch, but Pirate is a likely contender. Wagner’s lyrics are thrillingly non- linear, his vocals boom like a summer thunderclap, Tony Crow’s keyboards and the bevy of guitars provide a sterling foundation, and Scott Martin’s snare drum rolls hit like Rod Carew in the midst of a pennant race. It’s simply a fine thing to behold, as is the record in totality, a collection of songs as beautiful as the cover art on display above. Hell, I didn’t even mention their interpretation of Don Williams’ country hit I Believe in You. So I’ll go ahead and do just that. I just hope these guys make it somewhere close to DC when and if they decide to undertake a substantial North American tour. They’ve been a blast every time I’ve seen them, and another encounter would be simply grand.

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