Saturday, March 3, 2012

Music Review: Lambchop - Mr. M

Kurt Wagner has been repeating the same few bars of tinkering piano chords for 11 albums of his musical collective, Lambchop. With, what seems a martini atop the baby grand and blue smoke rising from an ashtray, Wagner composes music that combines a 1001 Strings session, an old Stax soul record, and an excursion in progressive lounge.

At the intro of the band's new release Mr. M, it's apparent that the album will focus on orchestral strings as the music gently dips into what sounds like Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song", before Wagner's smoky voice interrupts "chestnuts roasting on an open fire", with "don't know what the fuck they talk about", in the same nine syllables.

And then it's off to the la-la land of Lambchop where Wagner's soothing slightly off-kilter vocals sound like someone counting sheep in a twilight zone dreamland where a fine line is drawn between the cosmic and the mundane. "It was their last night on the continent", he sings like a spirited Cats Stevens on "Gone Tomorrow", and just as we're envisioning vacationing Europeans donning parasols and carousing the continent, he observes, "it looks like water comes from somewhere else".

You have to be in the mood for a Lambchop album and go with the thing. In a heartbeat I understood "water coming from somewhere else" to be an H.G. Wells-like observation of ancient aliens surveying a young planet Earth. Blame my sharp interpretation on too many weekends with The History Channel's "Ancient Aliens". Far out, man.

In Mr. M, a lot of fuzzy audio sound bites at various levels of sound lure, grab, and startle the listener, like David Lynch dropping the needle on a cursed 78rpm record. Is that somone chopping wood or swatting a flyswatter? A knock at the door or the beating of your own heart? A raspy voice from the telephone or from beyond? Earphones enhance this ghostly experience.

The album is dedicated to James Victor Chestnut ("Vic"), celebrated American songwriter and performer who died in 2009, and who collaborated with Lambchop on his 1998 album The Salesman and Bernadette. The sense of loss is great but enchanted in Mr. M.  Life goes on and remorse is a matter of fact, like the passing of a day. "And the warm comes back, even though I thought it would not", he sings on "Nice Without Mercy".

If there's a glitch in the album, it's the patchwork instrumental passages which are at times, trite. The exception being "Betty's Overture", an homage to another fallen musical hero, Elliot Smith, and a reminder of his haunting song, "Son of Sam". But the lengthy instrumental end to "Gone Tomorrow" is superflous and unloving and sounds like it was thoughtlessly tacked on. It should have been replaced with the lazy, summery instrumental "Gar", which sits vulnerably at the center of the album like a lost Sergio Mendes track, and fits into "Gone Tomorrow" like a glove.

But the rewards far outweigh the quibbles. There's enough soul mining here to last far into summer. Dig it.

this review was first published by me here.