Release Date: Oct 7, 2008
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Rock, Alternative, Country
Chief Lambchopper Kurt Wagner’s magpie tendencies are fully displayed on the band’s lovely 10th proper album. Tracks such as hushed opener ”Ohio” and the Johnny Cash-esque ”Of Raymond” show off elegant blends of country, rock, soul, and jazz. Actually, OH (Ohio) has something of an avian bent all-round. Wagner name-checks a blackbird on beautiful acoustic number ”Slipped, Dissolved and Loosed,” while the more upbeat ”National Talk Like a Pirate Day” makes mention of, naturally, a parrot.
Eleven albums in, “Nashville’s?most *%$#’d up country band” ?remains as indefinable as everI’ve long since given up attempting to label Lambchop; the exercise in futility hurts my head, and given that my ears are attached to that extremity, I need them focused on the task at hand. Is Lambchop alt.country? If sonic elements like steel guitars, nods to prime ?Burrito Brothers (tell me that “Close Up”—a kissing cousin to “Hot Burrito No. 1”—doesn’t grab you by the lapels of your Nudie jacket) or the occasional Countrypolitan string flourish strike you as such, sure.
Lambchop may have begun life as "Nashville's most fucked up country band," but with the passage of time the group's country leanings have slowly but surely faded away, and they've grown into perhaps the most singularly pleasurable pop band of their day, mastering a sound that embraces the broad sonic palate of chamber pop and the ambitious experimentalism of indie rock without losing touch with the organic, human voice that informed their early work. OH (Ohio) is Lambchop's tenth proper album, and it finds this band in masterful form; Kurt Wagner and his seven accompanists (with two additional musicians helping out with horns and woodwinds) bring a dazzling sense of grace, balance, and drama to the melodies, and while one senses the size of the ensemble while listening to these songs, there's no clutter or waste in the arrangements, and Lambchop is able to generate a compelling emotional immediacy no matter how broad their musical canvas. While no one will ever accuse Wagner of having a master's vocal range, his plaintive mumbles and mutterings have evolved into a remarkably expressive instrument, projecting a palpable range of hurt, longing, and conviction through his cryptic but genuinely fascinating lyrics.
When AC/DC spend 30-odd years making the same record, everyone applauds their monomaniacal focus. When Lambchop do roughly the same thing over half the time, with their careworn, ambient country-soul, they get accused of having a lack of ambition. OH (Ohio), typically for the Lambchop, is at its best when it's specialising in tight-wound reserve. I Believe in You is a lullaby of doubt and desire, while Close Up is an early-70s power ballad played on battered wooden instruments and with all the headache-making hysteria removed.
Has Kurt Wagner run out of road? After nine albums the Nashville oddball's parade of styles has dissolved into ambient noodling. His mumbled vocals are now barely audible – just as well, given his new penchant for 'borrowed' lyrical scraps. If you 'don't want to be frontman', as Wagner claims, find someone who does. .
Fans of Lambchop appreciate Kurt Wagner's sleepy and nuanced take on alt-country, which always comes with some lounge, jazz and soul on the side. The Nashville band's ninth studio album is definitely sleepy and nuanced, only Wagner's halted singing is disintegrating further into the background as the overall sound inches closer to adult contemporary. There are exceptions - Slipped Dissolved And Loosed moves energetically around a beautiful acoustic chord progression, and National Talk Like A Pirate Day showcases Wagner's terrifically absurdist lyrics.
Lambchop, bless them, have always found ways to sound grand while undermining their own grandest gestures. Hence, a rotating orchestra of 20 players, but few moments when feet stray from damper pedals or mouths blow fully into reeds. Hence, record sleeves that erect Hollywood-sign tributes to banality (Aw C’mon) and ignominy (Nixon). Hence, naming their band after a sock-puppet.
Kurt Wagner has finally admitted what’s been true all along: No matter how many dozens of Nashville musicians play on his records, Lambchop is a solo project, one growing more intimate by the moment. He’s now winnowed the tootling, banging and strumming masses down to a septet, a move that’s brought new focus and coherence to Wagner’s increasingly soft songwriting and dry, unmistakable sing-speak. “I’m such a bad enunciator/ Understanding me is hard,” he sings on “A Hold Of You,” but the emotional tenor on Lambchop’s 10th LP is hard to miss.