Release Date: Feb 21, 2012
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Rock, Alternative Country-Rock, Chamber Pop
Lambchop is a genre of one. Eleven albums and two decades into its career, the Nashville band, led by singer-guitarist Kurt Wagner, still belongs to no movement, no category, no trend; they're confirmed weirdos. On Mr.
Throughout my years of listening to Lambchop, in my search for self-fulfillment, I’ve tried to coin many a clever term to describe Kurt Wagner and his baseball-capped, idiosyncratic take on Americana: “Is it post-country?” “Well, sometimes. ” “Oh, it’s folk-funk, right?” “Sure… I guess” “No! I know, it’s post-folk! Err, no, chamber-country!” “You’re a goddamn idiot. ” Should probably just stick with unclassifiable, but whatever.
"I felt Lambchop had one more good record in us..." So said Kurt Wagner, the band's front man, in the announcement for their new album, Mr. M. This kind of understatement -- and when you hear the record, you'll know it is understatement -- seems typical of the soft-spoken crooner, but it also says something of the album's unusual beginnings. Wagner turned to painting, and away from music, after the untimely death of long-time friend Vic Chestnutt in late 2009.
For the first 20 seconds of Mr. M, all the listener will hear is the sound of a string section, gliding, pretty, and warm, like something from an old Disney movie. The strings are followed by brushed, rolling snare drums. Soon, Kurt Wagner, the band's singer, stumbles into the mix. "Don't know what ….
Nashville staple Lambchop’s latest, Mr. M, travels through each of its 11 tracks leisurely. It could be because this release marks the morph-happy group’s eleventh release, or it could be because mainstay Kurt Wagner just needed to deal with some serious curveballs in life, the most serious of those being the 2009 suicide of his close friend and fellow South-based songwriter Vic Chesnutt.
LambchopMr. M[Merge; 2012]By Harrison Suits Baer; February 23, 2012Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGTweetWhen Aristotle defined the Good Life, he posited that to achieve it is to lead a life dedicated to self-education, contemplation, and reason. Plato before him recalled the wisdom of his own departed mentor, Socrates, in writing that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” One must learn to contemplate one’s own life, and be able to acquire knowledge and exercise reason in order to live the Good Life.
The swelling and subduing strings, piano notes and brushed drums of the start to “If Not I’ll Just Die”, the first song on Lambchop’s latest album, really does sound like the setup for a Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald ballad. After the drums there’s that standard pause before the voice comes in, and instead of some slick crooner’s voice it’s Kurt Wagner’s more craggy one. He starts, “Don’t know what the fuck they talk about / maybe blowing kisses … and really what difference does it make?” It’s subversively non-committal and annoyed-sounding for a ballad.
Lambchop have made a number of outstanding albums as they've evolved from "Nashville's most f--ked-up country band" to a singular chamber pop ensemble during a career that lasted nearly two decades, but one of their finest works is not really a Lambchop album at all. Vic Chesnutt recruited Lambchop to serve as his backing band on the 1998 album The Salesman and Bernadette, and the results were a marvelous fusion of the group's broad but emotionally intimate approach and Chesnutt's witty, skewed, and perceptive gifts as a songwriter. Chesnutt and Lambchop's Kurt Wagner seemed like kindred spirits, fellow Southerners who married oblique yet telling poetry to melodies that were strong yet fluidly graceful, and it should surprise no one that Wagner was hit hard by Chesnutt's death in late 2009.
Listening to Kurt Wagner and his band – an ever-shifting line-up of Nashville musicians – requires a type of neurological slowing, particularly on this 11th record, whose sound he calls "psycho-Sinatra". But the "psycho" of this spacy lounge music is more astral rambling than unhinged ranting. At its worst this understated quality produces the drear muzak of "Gar", but at its best – as on "Mr Met", "a straightforward recounting of my feelings of love and loss", which begins with rich, stately cello arrangements and then unfolds through chapters of feeling – it's sublime.
Kurt Wagner has addressed loss, death and the indignity of ageing before, but never with quite such weary, stoic melancholy as he emanates here. Even when he lapses into cliche – "We were born to lose", "Who of us now knows where the time goes?" – his lugubrious voice makes you appreciate the feeling behind each commonplace expression. But, as exemplified by the (almost) title track, Mr Met, this quiet desperation is matched, phrase by phrase, with a belief in hope and happiness.
Dedicated to friend and colleague Vic Chesnutt, Lambchop's 11th album is as refined and dignified as the top-hat-wearing gentleman depicted on the cover. Always the central figure in the Nashville band, singer Kurt Wagner is now the lone original member, leading the streamlined five-piece through this collection of bittersweet songs about love and daily life. Though Lambchop are now less than half their peak size, glorious string arrangements and piano parts still complement Wagner's picked acoustic guitar.
Describing a [a]Lambchop[/a] album as contemplative is redundant, given that almost everything they’ve ever done has been sighing and lovelorn. However, ‘Mr M’ sees Kurt Wagner and co in a more reflective mood than ever. Four years since ‘Ohio’, dedicated to the memory of Vic Chestnutt and seemingly their swansong, it’s hushed and somnambulant even by their standards.
Lambchop are exactly the kind of artists the word "singular" was invented for, operating on their own wavelength in a city of rather strong wavelengths—Nashville—for two decades now..
Befitting an artist who's established himself as both a inquisitive genre mixer and inveterate jester, Lambchop's Mr. M opens with a joke. “If Not I'll Just Die” starts off lush and old-fashioned, a single piano plink giving way to the whisper of a brushed snare drum. Then Kurt Wagner opens his mouth, and if his smooth, smoky voice alone isn't enough to break the reverie, the words that follow are: “Don't know what the fuck they're talking about.” It's the kind of high-toned silliness that leaves Wagner and company's 12th album sounding fresh despite the familiarity of its themes.
Lambchop have now been a going concern for quarter of a century. Therefore, it would seem ridiculous that they’d find themselves in the position of having to follow up a career-best album. Yet, here we are. Four years after releasing OH (Ohio), a record where Nashville’s finest perfected their timeless blend of whiskey-drenched alt.
In the more tedious second half of a gig at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall in 2002, Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner finally snapped. A normally mild-mannered gent, he had grown tired of punters shouting out requests for songs from Nixon, the band’s classic breakthrough album from 2000, not stuff from its lacklustre successor Is A Woman, which the Nashville group were in town to promote. “Play some old stuff, your new stuff’s shit” shouted one frustrated fan.
Of their new record Mr. M, the ever-present daddy of Lambchop, Kurt Wagner, had this to say: "It was a studio creation, not a type of recording based on band performance, and this was a radical approach for us. I felt Lambchop had one more good record in us, and this time I was going to do things as directly and true to my desires as possible." So Lambchop, after nearly 20 years making music under the name, have gone the way of most bands that last long enough and have migrated to the studio.
Guided by their talismanic leader Kurt Wagner, the Nashville collective have produced a string of noteworthy records since their inception as Posterchild in the mid-80s. Now on their eleventh long player their latest record is is the dedicated to the memory of long term friend and collaborator Vic Chesnutt who died from an overdose of muscle relaxants on Christmas Day 2009. From the very first line of opening track ‘If Not I’ll Just Die’ with it’s uncharacteristic profanity and Louis Armstrong aura it’s clear that there is still some fight in the proverbial old dog yet.
The challenge of listening to Lambchop has long been penetrating the dreamy lushness of the band's sound in order to unlock the complex messages at the heart of singer-songwriter Kurt Wagner's lyrics. Since coalescing around Wagner in the mid-'90s, nearly everything about Lambchop has appeared incongruous with their Nashville surroundings. Even though Wagner's always looked like a farmer, he really wanted to be Curtis Mayfield, in spite of his limited, half-spoken vocal range.
There’s Sinatra swing to Lambchop’s latest, but it’s a twisted take on a new style. Tom Hocknell 2012 Kurt Wagner’s alt-country collective Lambchop have been quiet since 2008’s subdued OH (Ohio), and although this new offering does little to lift the downbeat atmosphere left by that collection, it’s good to have them back. Following the death of a friend, Wagner, a respected painter, had been focusing on visual arts; until, that is, long-term producer/band member Mark Nevers, keen to try something new, coaxed him back into the studio.To fans of the band, evolution in Lambchop’s sound will come as nothing new; but those only familiar with 2000’s soulful Nixon album might struggle with this latest development.