Graded on a Curve:
Lampchop, Mr. M

After a wait of over three years, Kurt Wagner and his band of astute conspirators have delivered yet another highly distinguished album. Lambchop’s Mr. M unwinds as just one more example of Wagner and Co’s unfussy brilliance, and it adds to the oeuvre of one of the finest acts American music has produced in the last quarter century.

Due to the nature of their early musical inclination, a rustic sound that held uneasy relationships with the comforts of both contemporaneousness and tradition, Lambchop has been frequently identified as one of the more eclectic examples of the alt-country genre, a circumstance that’s only been amplified by the group’s residence in Nashville, TN. It’s a tag that Kurt Wagner and Co has never really bristled against, even after moving considerably beyond the template established by their first few albums, mainly because there really isn’t another genre that can comfortably house them.

However, Wagner can be grouped with Will Oldham, David Berman, and Bill Callahan, all artists that charted paths out of the early ‘90s US indie boom to their own uniquely expressive ends. But of this foursome, Berman is no longer musically active, riding out on a high note, Oldham is a heavily collaborative and highly prolific operator continually shifting between on-again off-again bands and projects, and Callahan is most accurately sized-up as a solo artist. In this group it’s in Wagner alone that we find an artist so inclined to explore the possibilities of a gradually shifting (in membership as well as sound) long term collective.

Mr. M opens with “If Not I’ll Just Die,” four and a half minutes of lush, symphonic lounge, a song that if used as an introduction to Lambchop would surely bypass any alt-country connections and instead inspire an association with neo-easy listening. But for longtime listeners this development is par for the course, the use of strings being a longstanding component of the band’s arsenal asserting itself as far back as their second album How I Quit Smoking. If on “If Not I’ll Just Die” Lambchop are shooting for a Tormé /Sinatra vibe instead of the chamber-country of Smoking’s “We Never Argue” or the deep soul excavation of What Another Man Spills’ Curtis Mayfield cover “Give Me Your Love” (Love Song),” well, that’s just gravy. And the song does feature the sterling piano of Tony Crow, traces of gentle noise adding brief and familiar commentary, and of course the immediately recognizable properties of Wagner’s voice and lyrics, all three casually establishing the group’s aural signature.

“If Not I’ll Just Die” is a study in contrast, another example of how Lambchop’s gorgeous arrangements and impeccable instrumentation sugar the pill of Wagner’s examinations of loss, dysfunction, alienation, and despair. With the notable exception of some of their country-soul inflected stuff that sprung up on Thriller and What Another Man Spills (see the covers of Mayfield, Frederick Knight’s Stax nugget “I’ve Been Lonely For So Long” and even their vamping up of East River Pipe’s “Hey, Where’s Your Girl?”), this has largely been the band’s default mode. And while this mixture of beauty and darkness wisely avoids the maudlin, it’s also not exactly a barrel of laughs, which is one probable explanation for Lambchop’s small yet devoted core following stateside.

And Mr. M is an even darker album than usual for the band. For starters, it’s dedicated to the memory of Vic Chesnutt, a gifted musician stricken with long-term health problems who took his own life on Christmas day in 2009. Listening to the album with this tribute to a departed friend in mind (Lambchop backed Chesnutt on the outstanding 1998 LP The Salesman and Bernadette) only deepens this record’s moods of frustration, particularly those of emotional and physical separation examined on “2B2.” The song’s stripped down yet sturdy musical bed slowly grows into a sweet melancholy ache while Wagner’s loose yet resonant imagery and a muffled, troubled answering machine recording intensify the aura of isolation and the accumulation of otherwise insubstantial activity (taking down Christmas lights, watching TV, cooking a meal) that accompany it.

But there are moments on Mr. M that if not necessarily upbeat, at least provide a crucial sense of moderate uplift that helps shape the record into another smartly delivered tapestry of expressiveness. “Gone Tomorrow” and particularly both of the disc’s exceptional instrumentals “Gar” and “Betty’s Overture” prove that while not a band of astounding sonic diversity, Lambchop do possess impressive range within the confines of their well-established sound. And while a wealth of diversity can be admirable (if focused, natch), the sort of disciplined range this band has made a habit of displaying is perhaps a greater achievement.

Like most of Lambchop’s albums, the quality of the tracks and their relationship to each other makes it difficult to locate a high point. It certainly could be found in the expert tonal shifts of “Mr. Met,” a song where the Tosca String Quartet’s tough chamber feel contrasts with the lush contributions of the London String Ensemble on tracks like “If Not I’ll Just Die” or “Gone Tomorrow.” And like “2B2,” “Nice Without Mercy” foregoes strings, adapting a spare forcefulness that accents some of the album’s more linear storytelling. However, Wagner’s most straightforward lyrics come on “The Good Life (is wasted),” the tune flaunting some of the C&W feel that he’s largely sidestepped on recent Lambchop releases in favor of a sort of Southern Leonard Cohen-ist vibe. If in the past he could come off like moodier Tom T. Hall, on “The Good Life” he sounds like a mixture of Don Williams and Lee Hazelwood.

That C&W feel was given a much more thorough examination on KORT: Invariable Heartache, Wagner’s collaboration with singer Courtney Tidwell that came out last year. It featured members of Lambchop in the band and found the vocalists paying tribute to obscure Nashville label Chart Records by indulging in some sly duets that recalled the prime discourse of George and Tammy. While Mr. M eschews this sensibility, Tidwell does appear in a backup role, and her turn on the instrumental “Gar” brings a subtle exotica flavor to what’s already a pleasant, airy tune. She’s also briefly on “Betty’s Overture,” lending a noirish feel to what sounds like a Shorty Rogers or Johnny Mandel composed theme for a TV show about a kickass yet emotionally troubled lady secret agent.

But everybody on the record contributes in top form, and in a way that resists singling out individuals for specific praise. Lambchop’s is an ensemble sound after all, low on flash and high on interaction. The group’s masterful maturity elevates Mr. M’s 11 songs into a simply superb document, the record denoting the third installment in a loose triumvirate of late-works with ‘06’s Damaged and ‘08’s OH (Ohio). For fans of the band it’s an indispensable purchase, but I can’t imagine there are many Lambchop partisans that haven’t already picked it up.

Please note that the 2LP edition includes four bonus tracks, three of them remixes, one a top-notch cover of Glen Campbell’s (Brian Wilson-penned) “Guess I’m Dumb.” All the extra stuff is located on side four, which smartly allows the album’s thematic integrity to remain intact. And along with the download coupon, the whole package clearly shows why Merge continues to thrive creatively after growing into one of the music scene’s bigger true indies. As does the fact that they’ve stuck with Lambchop’s stately accomplishments for nearly twenty years.

Graded on a Curve: A

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