There’s Sinatra swing to Lambchop’s latest, but it’s a twisted take on a new style.
Tom Hocknell 2012
Kurt Wagner’s alt-country collective Lambchop have been quiet since 2008’s subdued OH (Ohio), and although this new offering does little to lift the downbeat atmosphere left by that collection, it’s good to have them back. Following the death of a friend, Wagner, a respected painter, had been focusing on visual arts; until, that is, long-term producer/band member Mark Nevers, keen to try something new, coaxed him back into the studio.
To fans of the band, evolution in Lambchop’s sound will come as nothing new; but those only familiar with 2000’s soulful Nixon album might struggle with this latest development. Nevers’ idea is a ‘psycho-Sinatra’ arrangement of strings and other sounds, presented in a more open yet complex way… whatever that means. And it’s unclear until you hear it – the new directional pull translates into a subtle shift of style, but it’s one that raises Lambchop’s heart even higher up their sleeve.
Mr M’s opening tracks are so heartbreakingly intimate that it is hard to maintain eye contact with them. The strings on opener If Not I'll Just Die pine as eloquently as the lyrics, while the Princely-titled 2B2 couldn’t be further from purple joie de vivre. Wagner’s fractured vocal pleads to be allowed to rest over the most fragile of arrangements, pulling no punches, while Nevers is true to his word on the string orchestrations. At times their lusciousness is misleading, as they take you by the easy listening-hand only to drop away, or soar, when you (and apparently Kurt) least expect them to.
Lambchop are highly respected for a reason – but adhering to John Updike’s “review the book, not the reputation” mantra, if there’s a problem here it’s how personal this album is, how bleak and heartbroken its protagonist appears. This is not music romanticising heartbreak, but the very sound of heartbreak itself. When the mood temporarily lifts, on The Good Life (Is Wasted), you can hear the relief at some positivity in Wagner’s poise.
This album sounds how cracked bluegrass 78s might with modern technology: old-timers rocking on the porch with a battered four-string, but backed by a full orchestra. The influence of Frank Sinatra’s September of My Years album will delight established fans, but those new to the band may find the fragility of the songwriting and subdued mood hard to embrace.