Graded on a Curve: Lambchop,
I Hope You’re Sitting Down / Jack’s Tulips

28 years ago this September, Nashville’s Lambchop released their full-length debut, a sprawling affair not unusual for its era except that it was utterly devoid of filler. As intriguing as it is consistent, I Hope You’re Sitting Down / Jack’s Tulips is simultaneously loose but well-ordered, and with an irreverent but never dismissive relationship to the country music of their home city. While in no way embryonic, the contents are also distinct from any Lambchop album that followed, and it’s been long overdue for a vinyl reissue. Merge Records has remedied this lack with a peak vinyl red and pink swirl edition, along with standard black wax. Both are available now. Considerations and recollections are found below.

As is the case with many debuts, Lambchop’s dual-titled first record was the byproduct of a long period of gestation, reportedly spanning back to the mid-’80s, with a prior name in the narrative (Posterchild) and a series of three cassettes (one shared with the bands Crop Circle Hoax and Spent) that date back to 1990, some of their contents collected in 2011 by Grapefruit Records on the Turd Goes Back LP.

There was also a handful of pre-LP 7-inches, one of them issued as Posterchild (a split with Crop Circle Hoax), with much of this material, along with live and unreleased stuff, later compiled by Merge on the 2001 CD Tools in the Dryer. While playing the side stage of the Lollapalooza Festival earlier in the summer of I Hope You’re Sitting Down / Jack’s Tulips’ release (1994), the band’s merch included those 45s, along with packs of cigarettes personalized with a fancy cursive capital L (similar to the lettering found on the sweaters of Laverne DeFazio).

Lambchop’s show at the Charles Town, WV Lollapalooza tour stop was pleasant but hard to pinpoint as their music blended with the sound of Parliament-Funkadelic wafting over from the larger stage. Seated in a rocking chair with his guitar, Kurt Wagner remarked upon the mingling and seemed amused. Back home afterward, those 7-inches sharpened the focus somewhat, but it wasn’t until the release of Sitting Down / Tulips that the full extent of Lambchop’s eccentricity was revealed.

Sometimes tagged as alt-country (by ’94, a label well-ensconced to demark the indie-era revamp of country-rock/ country-punk), Lambchop never fully fit that bill. To reiterate, there’s the eccentricity, a naturally occurring weirdness that’s frankly at odds with alt-country’s largely conformist (perhaps more charitably, quickly predictable) gestures of rebellion.

After time spent with Sitting Down / Tulips, a similarity to Will Oldham’s contemporaneous work under the shifting Palace moniker arose and lingered, but with a major difference in that Oldham was mysteriously folky (evincing Appalachian old-time roots) while Wagner was already a true storytelling son of Nashville (his similarities to Tom T. Hall blossoming later), and with his freak flag flying high.

By the point of Sitting Down / Tulips’ recording, Wagner, who has long been Lambchop’s operating engine (even if it didn’t necessarily seem like it at first), had attracted a sizeable mess of musical co-conspirators like a magnet. Contrasting, the second Palace Brothers album, 1994’s Days in the Wake, the one with a sleeve photo suggesting an LP by Jandek, found Oldham’s contributors scaled back to his literal brothers Ned and Paul. Sitting Down / Tulips’ cover? A painting by Wagner of a boy and a dog that’s like a candid Polaroid snapshot gone Southern Gothic.

One last point of comparison between Oldham and Wagner relates to how the music of the former undoubtedly presaged the uprising of the New Weird America (a totally cool circumstance), while the output of the latter (and his shifting aggregation) has remained essentially sui generis through a gradually transpiring decades-long evolution.

Bluntly, outside of fleeting moments of similarity, nobody else sounds like Lambchop in any of the outfit’s distinct phases. Which, given those undisguised country roots, is especially remarkable, with twang part of the equation from the very start of Sitting Down / Tulips’ opening track “Begin,” accompanied by a winding organ lines, some mandolin, an opening lyric mentioning the Holocaust, and, near to the end, a touch of horns.

“Betweemus” gathers a head of steam that’s rightly assessed as rocking (but sans country-rock clichés), a recurring thrust across the album and notable for how Lambchop, as their discography progressed, essentially abandoned it. “Soaky in the Pooper” is next in the sequence, easily Sitting Down / Tulips’ “hit single” (indeed released on 45 in ’94), the song’s infusion of strings and brass serving as a harbinger of later developments, but still distinct (specifically, the deep chamber feel of the strings and trombone playing that’s mildly reminiscent of indie contemporaries Eggs).

“Soaky in the Pooper” is about a suicide that occurs in a bathroom (and the ensuing funeral), but as the title situates, Wagner’s flashes of wit skirt the maudlin even as he toys with it. This is where the real foreshadowing is found, as Lambchop would go on to embrace (more appropriately, downright fondle) and elevate a symphonic approach that’s often associated with craven heart-string-tugging and tear-jerking.

And the title “Because You Are the Very Air He Breathes” might suggest a dive into emotionalism (a CD booklet photo traces it back to an advertising slogan), but that’s deceiving, the song slathered in guitar racket as the rock vibe returns, an angle that, at the time, had the effect of lessening Wagner’s role in the overall scheme of things, though this might be an accurate representation of how it all played out.

But then again, maybe not. “Under the Same Moon” finds the ensemble elevating Wagner to the fore on a song that predicts both the unhurried descriptiveness of second album How I Quit Smoking and numerous catalog highlights after that. If there’s a cut on Sitting Down / Tulips that encapsulates the sound of Lambchop to come, it’s either this one or a little later in the album, “Bon Soir, Bon Soir,” with its slow burn lyrical bite.

Both songs assist the record in not being defined by stylistic touches that were soon to be cast aside, such as the backing vocals in the wonderfully pretty “I Will Drive Slowly,” a legitimately romantic tune (talk about a diversion from standard 1990s indie practices!) where the conversational warmth of Wagner’s voice suggests, and not for the last time, the influence of Don Williams over Gram Parsons.

“Oh, What a Disappointment” finds the horns, the pedal steel, the organ, the guitar, and Wagner’s voice (interestingly multi-tracked here) in fine balance as the rhythm section asserts itself once more. Next, the raucous up-tempo “Hellmouth,” and its musical sibling from later in the sequence “So I Hear You’re Moving” (“I’ve got drugs, to blow your mind” Wagner sings), establish the punk in Lambchop’s DNA, with Buzzcocks and Stranglers covers in their future.

From there, “Hickey” exudes traces of psychedelic atmosphere without losing a grip on the song’s progression, and then “Breathe Deep,” which opens with a solitary guitar, only to methodically add musical layers and injections of heft, takes the storytelling to a Raymond Carver-esque extreme. Wagner plunges even deeper into this mode in “What Was She Wearing?,” as the band takes a detour into the abstract.

Between them, “Let’s Go Bowling” basks in a more traditional story-song template as the music hits a splendid mid-way point between lushness and morning after dishevelment. This refers back to the looseness spoken of in the intro above. However, setting aside “What Was She Wearing?” (which sounds freeform but surely is not), Lambchop aren’t meandering or undisciplined. As evidence, there’s the late gem “Cowboy on the Moon” and its (autobiographical?) remembrance of the moon landing.

“Of Thousands of Prizes,” this edition’s bonus track, actually isn’t, as it was the penultimate cut on the only prior vinyl edition, released in Europe in 1994 by City Slang. Most serious non-Continental Lambchop heads likely recognize it either from its inclusion on Tools in the Dryer or as the opening track on Merge Records’ five year anniversary compilation Rows of Teeth.

“Of Thousands of Prizes” makes an already long release even longer. It’s fair to say that Sitting Down / Tulips is probably too long (no different from this review), and yet it’s worth reinforcing the album’s lack of filler (all of the tracks get covered in this appreciation for exactly this reason). Instead, this 2LP represents how most debut records, whether short or long, delineate an end as they establish a hopeful beginning.

Never will a band have as much time (with nobody’s clock ticking and on nobody else’s dime) to accrue a pool of songs than during the period prior to releasing their first long player. The CD era simply allowed musicians, in cahoots with willing labels, a broader canvas to document the formative woodshedding. Individually, every song on this record is worth the time. Together, they can prove formidable and a bit unwieldly (Lambchop’s 2004 albums Aw C’mon and No, You C’mon cohere into a more seamless long form excursion), but the whole is never frustrating.

Fittingly, I Hope You’re Sitting Down / Jack’s Tulips ends not with a bang but with an appealingly modest instrumental, “The Pack-Up Song.” It’s less a finale than a postscript (an afterword), or better yet, it’s Lambchop simply scooting any remaining listeners toward the exit: “What, you’re still here? Hey, show’s over, time to go home…”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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