It’s rare for musicians raised on avant-gardery to pursue pre-rock forms without first donning a specious cloak of irony, but this Nashville-based ensemble (known as Posterchild until lawyers from Poster Children’s label got involved) has staked its claim to the title of America’s first post-punk jug band without the slightest hint of dress-up pretense or faux-hayseed hooting. The band may employ old-timey instrumentation — banjo, mandolin, pedal steel and string bass have all made appearances over the years — but because of the sheer number of people involved (anywhere from 10 to 14 full-time members on any given record), the resulting sound is warm, detailed and luxurious.
Yet for all their looking backward, Lambchop has neither ignored the advent of electricity nor chosen to underscore primitivism with overtly Appalachian ephemera. Instead, frontman Kurt Wagner (whose reverberant ’20s-vintage Gibson L-3 is an important element to the overall sound) crafts a passel of subtle, detailed songs that draw on the wealth of American music traditions, from country and soul to jangly pop, all the while retaining a pleasing sense of timelessness.
In a clear voice surprisingly reminiscent of Glen Campbell’s, Wagner sticks to topics familiar to any country fan — from skid-row death (“Soaky in the Pooper”) to everyman’s appreciation of life’s little pleasures (“Under the Same Moon”) — on I Hope You’re Sitting Down (which also goes by the spine name Jack’s Tulips). To his credit, Wagner doesn’t feign guilelessness: his characters worry about the holocaust and crashing their Volkswagens far more often than they do the state of their crops. In other words, Lambchop would have knocked ’em dead at Woodstock — the first one, that is.
The band pumps down the volume even further on How I Quit Smoking, a collection of songs that spiral in on themselves with agoraphobic insularity. Propelled by Wagner’s soft croon and underscored by the sublime restraint of the musicians, “The Man Who Loved Beer” allows its underpinning tragedy to seep through the edges, while “All Smiles and Mariachi” luxuriates in blue-collar alienation. Evidence of Wagner’s unique songwriting gift are nowhere more apparent than on “Theone,” which manages to refer Gomer Pyle but still be the sort of affecting love song other artists would kill for.
Recorded on the Fourth of July, the Hank EP (for which the members all adopted Henry-related pseudonyms) is a conscious attempt to capture the “live” sound of the band — a pointless exercise since, with the notable exception of “I Sucked My Boss’s Dick,” the band is every bit as tight as on “proper” studio recordings.
Three of the eight songs on Thriller were written by F.M. Cornog (aka East River Pipe); the title track, an ambient instrumental, bears no resemblance to the million- selling 1983 record of the same name. The band expands upon its signature sound a bit, adding understated textural flourishes to such tracks as the opener, which possesses such nocturnal beauty that you could actually forget that it’s titled “My Face Your Ass.” Elsewhere, “Your Fucking Sunny Day” presents Lambchop at its jangliest, and the Cornog covers (including a delightfully world-weary reading of “Superstar in France”) are delivered with appropriate delicacy.
What Another Man Spills mixes in new influences with generally good results. A straight-ahead (and surprisingly funky) cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Give Me Your Love” allows Wagner to road test his falsetto; “King of Nothing Never” (another East River Pipe tune) serves as a reminder of the band’s indie rock pedigree. The album’s high points, however, are such distinct originals as “The Saturday Option” and “Magnificent Obsession.” If the attempts to integrate new styles aren’t all successful, it’s clear from the hootin’ and hollerin’ instrumental “Theme From the Neil Miller Show” that the musicians are having a hell of a good time trying.
The stylistic promise of What Another Man Spills is fulfilled in spades on Lambchop’s masterpiece, Nixon, which weaves strands of country, folk, soul and gospel into the fringes of an expansive and diverse set. “Up With People,” which begins with little more than a strummed guitar and ends with a full gospel choir, handclaps and horns, is by far the band’s most ambitious song and perhaps its best. Elsewhere, Wagner alternates between an assured falsetto (on the outstanding “You Masculine You” and “What Else Could It Be”) and a wry storyteller baritone (“Nashville Parent”) as the album navigates effortlessly from peak to peak. Highly recommended.
Recorded at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 2000, The Queen’s Royal Trimma features two songs from Nixon, a cover of “Love TKO” (Womack and Womack by way of Teddy Pendergrass) featuring members of opening act Calexico (not that you can tell) and an even-better-than- the-original version of “Theone.”
Tools in the Dryer gathers an assortment of Lambchop ephemera, some of it dating as far back as 1987 when the band consisted of three guys making self-released cassettes in a living room. The early non-album singles “Nine” and “Cigarettiquette” not only offer revealing glimpses of how the signature sound emerged but are hugely enjoyable in their own right. A few remixes (a reasonable cut-up of “The Militant” from Unrest’s Mark Robinson and a forgettable loungey “Up With People” by Zero- 7) round out the package.
Given that the band spent almost a year touring the songs from Is a Woman before recording them, it’s surprising how unengaging the result is. Pared down to a 12- piece (and with greater prominence given to the delicate piano work of Tony Crow), the album spends 60 minutes skulking in the atmospheric and introspective end of the Lambchop sound without ever leavening the mood. While hardly bad (“The New Cobweb Summer” and “My Blue Wave” are positively magnificent), the album too often sounds as if the ceaseless invention that made Nixon so vibrant has been replaced by self-consciousness of the wrong sort. (The first European pressing adds a three-track bonus disc containing an astonishing take on the Sisters of Mercy’s “This Corrosion.”)
With the overseas success of Nixon and Is a Woman, Wagner was finally able to ditch his day job and devote himself to songwriting. Around the same time, Lambchop was commissioned to provide a live soundtrack to F.W. Murnau’s classic silent film Sunrise. Both of these factors contribute heavily to AwCmon and NoYouCmon, two albums culled from the same sessions, released on the same day and packaged together, but not — insists the band — a double album. Whatever. Like most double albums, there’s about a single disc of top- shelf Lambchop between them, fleshed out with tunes that would have made apt B-sides or bonus tracks. AwCmon is the stronger of the two, with a trio of outstanding instrumentals acting as the backbone for a suite of typically moody songs. The piano-and-strings ballad “Steve McQueen” is as good as anything the band has ever done, while the lugubrious “Women Help to Create the Kind of Men They Despise” is little more than a title in search of a song. NoYouCmon is more eclectic and less focused, with fine moments to be found. “Nothing Adventurous Please” has a fast rock beat and some fairly adventurous distorted electric guitar, “Shang a Dang Dang” is an endearing take on Stonesy country rock; add “About My Lighter” to the worthy tracks. All the same, neither album quite manages to stand on its own. Taken together, AwCmon/NoYouCmon would definitely have benefited from collective editing.
With so many members, Lambchop side projects and guest appearances are a virtual cottage industry. Vibraphonist Paul Burch has released several records as Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub. Paul Niehaus has lent his distinctive pedal steel to the likes of Yo La Tengo, Calexico and Ladybug Transistor. Alex McManus has pursued his own indie- country path as the Bruces. Mark Nevers has handled production duties for, among others, the Silver Jews and Will Oldham.