Release Date: Nov 4, 2016
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Alternative Singer/Songwriter, Alternative Country-Rock, Chamber Pop
Kurt Wagner's ever-reliable Nashville outfit Lambchop hasn't been heard from since 2012's Mr. M, but last year Wagner and a couple buddies got together to release an excellent, subdued electronic album under the name HeCTA. That experience got Wagner working outside of his comfort zone, and in an attempt to experiment further with his writing and production techniques, he and his band have taken a brand new approach for this new album (whose title stands for For Love Often Turns Us Still, notwithstanding the invocation of the U.S.
There’s a sprawling sense of ambition to Lambchop albums that can come off, to some extent, as intimidating to some. The Nashville country-folk project, led by singer-songwriter Kurt Wagner, has matured into a wordsmith whose patient, sedate lounge is usually suffused with careful reflection and playful songwriting. He allows you to keep full, open judgment, and those who decide to get into his groove-oriented arrangements and smooth jams will get to discover more than what the surface level might suggest.
There’s a sense of charm in the apparent futility of what Nashville alt-country crooner Kurt Wagner has stated as the light premise for Lambchop’s latest FLOTUS: “the initial plan was to make a record that maybe my wife would like. The music she listens to on her phone is often commercial pop, commercial hip-hop — she’s a big Beyoncé fan. I thought, ‘I would love to be in her playlist.
Twelve albums into a career most often, but not always, synonymous with country-soul, Kurt Wagner’s band have taken on the ticklish susurrations and voice processing of 21st-century music production. Bon Iver is an obvious reference point, but Wagner is a more subtle operator than Justin Vernon – more painterly and granular, less angsty. The title nods obliquely to politics (Wagner’s wife is chair of the Tennessee Democratic party), but Flotus is a calm, cumulative album about lasting love, unfussily filtering ancient through modern.
While they may have been conveniently lumped in with the alt country movement, Kurt Wagner’s Lambchop have always had a lot more to offer than that suggests. Over 11 previous LPs, countless tour-only releases, EPs and collaborations, Wagner has amassed a discography notable for its consistency of quality, stylistic breadth and the fact that despite those traits, they sound like nobody else. FLOTUS sees their biggest departure yet in terms of song writing and production.
As bullish statements of hope-you-like-our-new-direction intent go, the first track released from Lambchop’s 12th album took some beating. Kurt Wagner’s Nashville collective have long been more eclectic than the alt-country tag suggests, tackling everything from soul to lounge music, but they’ve never tried anything like The Hustle’s 18 largely instrumental minutes of chugging house beats, softly pulsing electronics, abstract woodwind and sparse flecks of piano. It’s utterly lovely, a phrase you could also usefully apply to JFK’s haze of vocodered vocals and jazzy piano, or Harbour County’s glitchy synths and echoing guitar.
Since their recording debut in 1994, Lambchop have evolved from a small combo to a veritable orchestra, complete with horns and strings. But since the mid-2000s, Lambchop leader, songwriter, and lead singer Kurt Wagner has been easing back on the scale of his ensemble, and 2016's FLOTUS is one of the most purposefully spare albums of his career. Lambchop once cheerfully described themselves as "Nashville's most f--ked-up country band," but FLOTUS betrays not the slightest country influence.
For an artist with such a sprawling body of work, it's remarkable just how solid and focused a discography Kurt Wagner has amassed over the past quarter-century. This may be due to the Nashville musician's penchant for making music both instantaneously relevant and timeless. As the only constant member of indie trad-country heroes Lambchop, Wagner manages to come off even more familiarly daring than before on FLOTUS, his first album in four years.Subtitled 'For Love Often Turns Us Still,' Lambchop's 12th LP explores electronic and ambient sounds.
The first song from Lambchop’s new album to be made public was eighteen-minute long closing track The Hustle, inspired by a wedding attended by the band’s lynchpin Kurt Wagner. It marks a change in direction for Lambchop, with intricate Four Tet like electronics brought to the fore, and presents itself as if in a series of movements. First, there’s a five-minute ambient instrumental, then Wagner’s vocals come in, singing super-romantic lyrics about enduring love and cloud formations.
Over the course of Lambchop’s two decade-plus career, they have been remarkably consistent. Even with their various lineup shifts, there have never been any tumultuous breakups, no big reunions, no major controversies. Any of their 12 studio releases could reasonably be your favorite. But while each of their albums sound unmistakably like Lambchop, no two of them sound quite alike; from the bouncy alt-country of Thriller, to the stark lounge folk of Is a Woman, through the sweetly orchestrated ballads of their last album, 2012’s excellent Mr.
The term “alt-country” never sat well with Lambchop, whose music owes as much to blues, soul, jazz and even low-key lounge, as it does to the band’s Nashville roots. FLOTUS (which means For Love Often Turns Us Still rather than First Lady of the United States) sees Kurt Wagner’s troupe sever links with the nebulous genre completely. Only the superb opening track In Care of 8675309 sticks within the parameters of traditional strong structure, and even that weighs in at almost 12 minutes.
Over the course of an illustrious career that has spanned nearly three decades, Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner has continuously shown himself to be an avid fan of music history, with a deep appreciation of various genres. Whether it was the wry indie rock of early albums like Thriller, the sardonic alt country of landmarks like Nixon, or the restrained gospel and soul influences of 2012’s Mr. M, Wagner has always been one to weave together disparate styles.
The long-running and beloved Nashville band Lambchop have been making uniquely postmodern guitar-based music for over two decades now. Like fellow 1990s tentpoles Pavement or Guided by Voices, Lambchop are experimental traditionalists. While the former took influence from AM pop and the experimental rock canon and the latter took British Invasion pop and filtered it through cheap four-track recordings, Lambchop’s initial sound came from classic country songwriting, with ballads that could easily fit in old saloons or traditional concert halls.
Lambchop’s 12th record won’t necessarily surprise anyone in that it is another shift for the ever-evolving artist. For decades, Kurt Wagner has continued to divert expectations throughout his work, since his humble beginnings as an alt-folk/country artist in the early Nineties, he has continued to mould his sound depending on the mood of the day. While FLOTUS may sound like a political album, it remains a largely personal affair, using the well known American presidential acronym to stand for For Love Often Turns Us Still.
A weekly roundup of must-hear music from The Times’ music staff. This week’s picks include the latest from beloved, funk-leaning local star Thundercat, as well as works from Ella Mai, José James and Guy Clark. Thundercat, “Drunk” (Brainfeeder). This is a modal window..
Across more than two decades, the brand applied to Lambchop has shifted from “alt-country” to “chamber pop,” but both labels applied only as a matter of convenience. With no precisely accurate description for the ever-changing palette of genres—from soul to jazz to easy listening—taken up by Kurt Wagner and his Nashville cohorts, generic characterizations seized upon the band’s instrumentation, whether incorporating folksy pedal steel and acoustics or lush orchestration. With the stark stylistic about-face that is FLOTUS, however, that’s no longer a problem.
If you’ve puzzled over 22, A Million one too many times (or sat through Justin Vernon’s explanatory, 90-minute press conference), you may well feel like that’s more than enough for one year–that we only require only one self-made indie-rocking man emoting obliquely through Autotune patches this election cycle. But Justin Vernon is not the only grizzled guy working in this vein in a notable way. Recently, Kurt Wagner—for nearly 30 years, the control variable in chameleonic Nashville collective Lambchop—became enamored with a piece of processing hardware called the TC-Helicon Voicelive 2, a pedal which can pitch-correct, harmonize, and sequence vocals on the fly.
Of all the acts saddled with the fleetingly fashionable alt. country label at the onset of the 00’s, Lambchop seemed particularly miscast. The lush textures of the Nashville collective’s 2000 breakthrough Nixon had a lot more in common with the soul symphonies of Curtis Mayfield than the pedal steel-bothering produce of their native Country Music capital’s famed Music Row.