.Review: Lambchop "Mr. M"

Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner has a voice like that of a lesser god, demoted because he couldn’t go through the trouble of administering to a needy world. However plaintive the backdrop – alt-country, indie, soul – Lambchop songs all seem like minor pastoral tragedies, strung together with ellipses that transition nicely from place to place. Their newest album “Mr. M” reflects a devotion to the familiar world of the wink and the woebegone.
Wagner, who started playing music in his thirties, understands that Lambchop is a “hard band to like,” but “an easy band to love.” In theory the idea might warrant a sneer, but hold fast. “Mr. M” is warm and narcotic, slipping into that province between pure knowledge and the fleeting memory of a dream, those few minutes of primordial cognition – for nearly an hour. In comes the half-toasted Wagner with a bit of salvation: “Don’t know what the fuck they talk about,” he says once the idyllic strings, piano, and light snare subside on opening track “If Not I’ll Just Die”, an appropriate point of entry for the uninitiated.
The temptation to label this album ‘sparse’ is there, but also wrong. A recording that contains this much instrumentation has to be expansive to let the sum of its parts breathe. This is thanks mostly to engineer Mark Nevers, whose work with Will Oldham and the Silver Jews finds the intimate in wide open spaces. Ponder the rich and shimmering string section, the wistful piano, a muffled voicemail, Wagner’s ambling murmur that alternates between advice and mockery – it swirls.
Lambchop is maybe a band, but more likely the right vehicle for Wagner, a painter who went to art school with the writer Richard Brautigan, to transmute the ordinary into the elegant. I sense he would be this way no matter what the craft, like he could change a tire and make you feel a little weird and lush while doing it.
Country music is the one realm where this can happen freely, extending to its players a poetic license they would have us believe is restrained in their ‘real’ lives. What defines Lambchop are Wagner’s ambiguities. He’s intuitive, feeling more than he lets on, and he lets on much already. It could be another way of embracing the emotional burden, but then also not knowing what to do with it. Lines like “friends make you sensitive” or “knowledge is difficult” save you the trouble of getting into an unpleasant conversation.
That Wagner dumps this much into each song and then distractedly wanders away is fine. “I don’t want to wake up when I’m stoned,” he admits. Who does?
Lambchop performs at the Great American Music Hall on May 4th. Tickets available here.

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