Graded on a Curve: Lambchop, Nixon

Have you ever loved something to death but were unable to tell anyone why? A particular mangy bong, a certain flashing array of exterior bar lights, that chimney atop the old house on the corner, your asshole boyfriend? Well that’s the case with Lambchop—the band, not the famous sock puppet sheep—and yours truly. I adore them, but I’ve always been loath to review them, because I’m afraid I lack the words to tell you just exactly what it is that makes them so goddamn great. Some things, as Samuel Beckett would have said, are Unnamable.

The Nashville-based Lambchop are singer, guitarist, and songwriter Kurt Wagner—who is never to be seen without some manner of non-baseball-related baseball cap and a graying soul patch—and a constantly shifting cast of musicians who on any given day may number as many as 14. They play an indescribable scramble of rock, funk, R&B, gospel, country, lounge music, and vintage folk that generally leaves you feeling either a lingering sense of melancholy (“Your Life as a Sequel,” “Slipped Dissolved and Loosed”) or joyously uplifted (“All Smiles and Mariachi,” “Your Fucking Sunny Day.”)

But those are just words; I love them because, because: hell, all I can say is check out “Give It (Once in a Lifetime)” from 2009’s Live at XX Merge on YouTube, and you’ll know why. (And if you don’t like it, we’re different species. You’re a wombat.) Or listen to “Garf,” which begins as a recollection of childhood only to make an abrupt left into this: “And I could be sitting/By the telephone tomorrow/To receive a call/By the overweight Garth Brooks/Who would then try to offer me/Like a hundred thousand dollars/Just for me to go the fuck away.” I laugh at the preposterousness of those words every time I hear them, but I don’t think that’s why I adore Lambchop either.

Formed in 1986 as Posterchild, Lambchop has released 12 albums, 5 EPs, and numerous compilation and tour-only LPs. I’ve heard most of them, and they’re all great. If Lambchop has never achieved large-scale stardom, it’s probably due to their ineffable sound and the strange and subtle beauty of Wagner’s lyrics, which he sings in an equally ineffable way, his voice shifting effortlessly from a droll conversational tone to an impressive falsetto. Never have I encountered a band so enigmatic in every way; they’re lumped under the alt-country label, but calling Lambchop alt-country is like calling the Minutemen punk rock. They have their alt-country moments; Lambchop’s cover of John Prine’s “Six O’Clock News” is flat-out amazing. But overall they’re too flat-out too weird for labeling.

My personal favorites are 1996’s How I Quit Smoking, 2008’s OH (Ohio), and the wonderful 2001 compilation of outtakes and alternative versions Tools in the Dryer, which includes the flute-driven lark “All Over the World” and the crazed garage rocker “Style Monkeys,” to say nothing of a countrified take on the Teddy Pendergrass hit “Love TKO.” That said, I love 2000’s Nixon a whole, whole lot. And seeing as how Nixon is considered a seminal LP and perhaps Lambchop’s finest LP, Merge Records has seen fit to give it the reissue treatment, including five bonus tracks, all stripped-down remakes of old Lambchop songs with the cryptic words “How I Met Cat Power” tagged on after their original titles. I expected to hear Cat Power joining in on Wagner’s vocals, but she’s a no-show, so who knows? Another one of Wagner’s sly jokes, I suppose.

Nixon opens with “The Old Gold Shoe,” a slow and beautiful tune rich in instrumentation: xylophone, horns, lots of soaring strings, and your usual suspects: one restrained but impeccable guitar, bass, and drums. There’s probably a synthesizer in there too. Wagner puts lots of space between his phrases, and as usual I have no idea what the song’s about: that’s not the way Wagner works. His mind spins out unrelated phrases that vary from the banal to the utterly mysterious, but they somehow work the way he sings them: “It all goes away/Each and every stinking day/I’m getting/Much better/This evening’s little upsetter” is about as straightforward as he gets, while “This house is not alone/I’m kicking ‘round here somewhere/So check behind the ancient speaker” is much more typical.

“Grumpus” is a slinky, funky (and by Lambchop standards, fast) number that opens with a cool guitar that is soon awash in strings, playing one very happening melody. Then Wagner comes in with a falsetto “Oooooooh/What’s the matter with the boy?” He alternates between his regular voice and the falsetto throughout, delivering lots more “Oooooohs” while the drummer nails down the rhythm. And Wagner tosses lots of great cryptic one-liners like, “Part of the process is sifting through the piles of shit” and “You wonder why you/Feel so low look at me/If you really want to see the/Comedy and the clown.” Like Destroyer, another artist I really love, I rarely have any idea what Wagner’s going on about. But it sounds right coming out of his mouth.

The sprightly and soul-tinged “You Masculine You” (which Wagner ironically sings in falsetto) opens with a some big drums, guitar, and strings, then Wagner comes swooning in to the accompaniment of some mildly funky guitar. There’s a sweeping horns and strings interlude that is pure lusciousness, a couple of big horn build-ups, and Wagner’s vocals are a thing of beauty and a joy forever, as Keats said then croaked. Then the song begins to build, Wagner’s vocals grow more urgent, and an electric guitar comes in, until finally what you’ve got is one fantastic denouement with strings, blaring horn swells, and some great bass and guitar, which I love so much I would gladly trade my first-born for, the poor little wretch. I had such high hopes for him. You want the best for your imaginary child. I saw him digging graves. But now I’ll never know, since he’ll belong to Merge or Lambchop and probably turn out to be a label executive or something similarly unsavory.

The perky “Up With People” belongs to a genre that doesn’t exist, although faux gospel funk is as good a description of any. It may well be Lambchop’s masterpiece, and that’s saying something. Anyway, it begins with an extended cool country funk guitar intro which is joined by handclaps, then Wagner sings, “Yes there comes a booming sound/It used to come from underground, yeah, uh huh/Now it emanates/From a kind of welfare state/Of the soul/Yeah baby of the soul.” This is followed by a big guitar and horn noise, after which Wagner sings, “We are doing/We are screwing/Up our lives today/Up our lives today, etc.” the final phrases accompanied by a female chorus. He sings “Come on progeny” (pronounced “proginay”) echoed by the female singers, then some horns come in followed by a hubbub from the female singers, as it all builds up to a throng of voices and one fantastic echoing guitar. It’s a tour de force, “Up With People,” and I could kick myself for trading my first-born for “You Masculine You” when I could have traded the little urchin, whom on second thought I would like to see grow up to rob banks (“That’s my boy!” I would say proudly), for this classic.

The languorous and lovely “Nashville Parent” opens with strings, then some horns come in followed by a long falsetto cry by Wagner, who then returns to the lower registers to sing, “And the neighbors have been drinking/And they are raising quite a stink/Pretty soon they will be fighting/It can get pretty ugly.” There are lots of neat touches throughout: a blare of horns, beautiful string interludes, some cool and tasteful guitar. The song only raises it voice during the conclusion of the chorus, when Wagner sings, “On a timely mission/Ooooh, you look pretty swell/In your new position.” And the song has a mild kicker of a fadeout, with a guitar playing one swell solo while the strings do their thing and Wagner croons away nonsensically in his falsetto.

The soulful and upbeat “What Else Could It Be” has Wagner in full falsetto mode, while a funkadelic guitar and equally funkified horn riffs accompany him. The chorus could come straight from Motown, and is followed by a groovalicious stop and start with lots of horns. Then there’s a guitar solo and a James Brown “Hyunh!” from Wagner, whose falsetto grows increasingly strained until it finally cracks and the song gets superbodacious, with the drums going mad, before ending with Wagner saying, “Come here sugar.” A great number, and one that perfectly demonstrates why calling Lambchop an alt-country band is sheer madness.

The slow and lugubrious “The Distance From Her to There” is perty as a pitcher, and shows why calling Lambchop an alt-country band makes perfect sense. It opens with a long and lazy guitar solo, very lovely, and it’s the guitar that owns the song: unlike the rest of the LP’s tunes this one is stripped clean—no drums, strings, horns, or kazoos, just the guitar and what I suspect is a very oddly tuned pedal steel guitar that sounds deranged rather than high and lonesome. Meanwhile Wagner varies from his regular voice to falsetto and back without rhyme or reason, throwing out lines like “I’m in the thick of it/I’ve been a dick with it/You’ll get used to it.” And he sings the wonderful chorus in a falsetto: “The lights outside tonight are far from home/And I’m out drinkin’ in the yard/I feel this sadder for/The sad old bone/It’s not far, really babe/It’s just not that far.” Why, it’s almost enough to make a former country boy weep.

The lovely and slow “The Book I Haven’t Read” opens with a long and delightful string section, then a bemused Wagner comes in (“The crickets cry tonight/Here comes your girl”) to the accompaniment of some pretty guitar and a short horn burst. Then it slows a bit, there are some lovely “la la la la las,” and Wagner’s voice is a treasure as the strings return to play another passage, only to be followed by a very laid-back guitar solo. “My disgusting habits end/It’s a crazy world,” sings Wagner, while the strings soar away and the “la la las” return, and if this isn’t one of the loveliest and sweetest tunes I’ve ever heard my name is Garf Brooks and I’m about to eat 16 Hostess Ding Dongs and my white marzipan cowboy hat, then hop on my trusty horse and bust its back.

“The Petrified Florist” opens with some ominous piano and simply played electric guitar, betokening a vague but unnamable sense of menace. Then Wagner sings, great big pauses between his phrases, “A goofy Libra/A drafty car/I do believe ya/Have stepped on my guitar.” The piano continues to play pairs of notes as some horns come in way in the background, then the song slowly opens like a corpse flower to a soaring chorus (“The closing of the door/The blistered buttered roar/Oh callous even hand/In the village of the damned”) boasting a big zooming something, probably a guitar, while the horns come in and out and Wagner sings, “A frightened bird/The written word/Our daily logic/Has become absurd.” The song then builds to a great raucous climax, complete with horns and that great zooming whatever, then slows to a feedback-infused ending complete with the death knell of a piano.

“The Butcher Boy” is a fast-paced bona fide rocker and an adaptation of an old traditional about a girl who hangs herself after being jilted by a butcher’s apprentice. It opens with Wagner talking to the accompaniment of one stormy electric guitar spewing feedback, then some horns come in and out, along with a taste of xylophone and some freaky noise that could be guitar feedback or something else. The tune increases in intensity as it goes along, with the guitar growing wilder and wilder while the horns play blurts and phrases, then some extended feedback comes in and Wagner finally shuts things down by singing in the voice of the poor suicide, “And over my coffin a snow white dove/To warn the world that I died of love.”

As for the bonus tracks, I don’t have much to say about them except as I said before they’re stripped to the bones but good. Four of the five are remakes of Nixon songs; the fifth, “The Saturday Option,” is a remake of a song off 1998’s What Another Man Spills. While I don’t like any of them as much as I do the originals, they offer their rewards. “Up With People” has charms the original lacks, and I’ll listen to it again, while “The Book I Haven’t Read” opens with a cool metronomic beeping and a quirky poem by Wagner. And “The Saturday Option” has some really cool feedback running the whole way through it.

A word of caution: Lambchop may not be one of those bands you love upon first listen, especially if like me you prefer faster tempos to slower ones. A love for hardcore dies hard. But I have never, and I mean never, heard a band that offered as many rewards upon repeated listening. Kurt Wagner is one of the unacknowledged geniuses of American music, and whatever it is you want to call the music Lambchop makes, and I call it The Unnamable, you will come to love it the way you love that particular mangy bong, a certain flashing array of exterior bar lights, the chimney atop that old house on the corner, or your asshole boyfriend. Why do you love that guy, anyhow? When you could have me?

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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