Friday, May 18, 2012

Lambchop's Mr. M subtly crafts a distinctly American pastoral epic

In a city well known for its music scene, Lambchop may be the best Nashville country band you've never heard of.

To call them full fledged country would be a mistake. Band leader Kurt Wagner borrows from a vast array of styles, including alt-country, lounge jazz, and old southern soul. It melts together to form a blend that is distinctly American, but unmistakably unique.

The key to Wagner's songwriting approach is that everything is very subtle. His voice has a folksy timbre with a quaint delivery, while a backing crew of organs, strings, and acoustic guitars quietly fill in behind. You may be wondering if the music is this subdued, are there even any strong hooks to get attached to? There are hooks, but you have to be paying attention. Mr. M is one of those records that reveals more and more with repeated listenings.

For those looking for comparisons, Red House Painters and perhaps Wilco's Being There album seem appropriate, but anything beyond a cursory glance reveals there's far more to it than that.

Mr. M often sounds something like old man's parlor music, but Wagner gives it a kick in the ass. The opening track, "If Not I'll Just Die," opens with an elegant string arrangement, and you might be thinking this is going to sound like a snooty lounge record in the vein of Steely Dan's Aja, but when Wagner drops a profanity of the very first line of the song it quickly becomes evident he has something much different in mind.

That's not to say that he only means to parody this music. From listening to his previous records, it is clear the sound heard here is indeed Lambchop's signature sound. However, Wagner is one of those rare musicians who can play music like this without taking it too seriously, and in fact can even poke fun at the genre's overindulgences. That's what makes Mr. M such an uncommon record.

There are specific moments when you get to see this in action. For example, consider the self effacing "The Good Life (Is Wasted)." The track sees Wagner reveal that underneath the moody organs and glorious strings, he's just an average guy who really knows about as much of country clubs and swanky ballrooms as any average citizen, perhaps even less.

This motif is not stated throughout the whole record, however. "Gone Tomorrow," perhaps the best song on the record, features a melody that freely flows like water running from a brook. The track's best feature, however, is the instrumental interplay from the rest of the band. Peaceful piano chords are complemented by descending melodies on the synthesizers, while drummer Scott Martin puts on an all-star performance.

There are plenty of cozy colloquialisms to be found in Wagner's lyrics. He touches upon many creature comforts, such as the joys of cooking, lounging around in your grandfather's living room, or taking down the Christmas lights in the mid February. "Mr. Met" shows him at his most sentimental, recalling the profound impact that friends, fear and knowledge play in our lives.

Wagner is also well known for his dry brand of humor. "Buttons" is the best example of this, on which Wagner tells the tale of a stubborn man down on his luck. He details his efforts to try to find a crappy job and stay out of jail, and then ridicules him for landing a girl and driving her away. All before revealing that he used to be just as big of a prick himself.

There are a pair of instrumental tracks here that show how each interlocking segment of the band's sound fits together to form a whole. "Betty's Overture," in particular gives the synthesizer a chance to shine. It all wraps up with "Never My Love," which is surprisingly brief and direct for this album's standards. It is Wagner's concise but unassuming thoughts on where he would be without the love of his life.

Mr. M is a smashing success because it blends several musical styles that are very familiar, yet have rarely been brought together the way Wagner manages to do here. It also impresses with its beatifically realized minimalist mission; this is a record that seems to communicate more with what it doesn't say that with what it does. It is a subdued pastoral masterstroke of the highest order, and one you owe it to yourself to get lost within.

Score: 91/100

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