Down in Nashville, where Satan rides a desk on Music Row and the soulless progeny of the new country are being churned out in secret labs beneath the Grand Ole Opry, Kurt Wagner waits for a phone call.
Wagner, in case you haven’t heard, is the leader of an ensemble called Lambchop. Lambchop is not a new-country band, or an old-country band, or even an alt-country band—which is not a good thing if you want to get ahead in Music City, U.S.A. And that’s why Wagner has been lingering by the phone for a very, very long time. Since 1996, to be precise. That’s when Lambchop released How I Quit Smoking, on which Wagner sings: “And I could be sitting/By the telephone tomorrow/To receive a call/By the overweight Garth Brooks/Who would then try to offer me/Like $100,000/Just for me to go the fuck away.”
It must be tough to be an unacknowledged musical genius in a town where Clint Black could shit in a jewel box and watch it go platinum, but Wagner isn’t really complaining. Instead, he and his bandmates have been putting out some of the finest country albums ever not to fit a pigeonhole. Seven since 1994, before which the band issued lots of singles and cassettes, first under the name Posterchild, then as Lambchop after Poster Children made threatening noises. Over the years, the band has grown from three members to, well, I count 18 on the new album—more if you include the crickets.
From the beginning, though, Lambchop has been a platform for Wagner’s eclectic yet unwavering vision. From the Pere Ubu-like warble-rockers and Basement Tapes-style impromptu recordings of its early years to the funky soul covers it has dabbled in lately, Lambchop has crossed genres with the shamelessness of Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs. But even the band’s most radical departures—the Zero 7 Reprise remix of “Up With People” on the 2001 compilation Tools in the Dryer comes to mind—still sound, somehow, like quintessential Lambchop.
That said, new album Is a Woman is a very different cup of meat from 2000’s Nixon, which saw Wagner piling on the strings and horns and generally making a musical Dagwood Bumstead of himself. Is a Woman is a subdued and stripped-down affair; most of it was recorded with the same eight or nine players, and on lots of tracks, you’ll wonder just where they’re hiding. Wagner has said that he wanted to make an album of ruminative “closers,” and with the exception of the perky “D. Scott Parsley,” that’s exactly what you get. Gone—for the most part—are the ambitious string arrangements and horn charts, the flashes of soul and the brief forays into noise and dissonance. What’s left is an album of midtempo numbers dominated by Wagner’s enigmatic vocals, Tony Crow’s piano, and some strummed acoustic guitars.
That this newfound restraint not only succeeds but also conquers is a testament to Wagner’s extraordinary voice. His vocals have been described as a love-’em-or-hate-’em proposition by some, but what’s to hate about a voice that is earnestly ironic, blithely serious, and bewitchingly average—in short, a voice that can only be described in terms of paradox? It’s a seemingly blunt instrument, yet one capable of opening a vein of sorrow you didn’t even know you had, when Wagner hangs onto a word or a phrase for dear life only to let it go just like that, as if it didn’t really matter in the first place.
It’s the voice of a fellow you wouldn’t mind sitting with on a Tennessee porch some summer evening, with the fireflies flashing in the dark, a cold Dixie in your hand, and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks floating through the open door from the dimly lit living room. Like Morrison’s masterwork, Lambchop’s new album is as metaphysical as they come. But whereas the former is the expression of one kind of existential paradox—Morrison, with his mantralike repetitions, was trying to transcend the word through the use of the word—Is a Woman is the expression of another, namely that of a man who knows that to realize you know nothing is to know everything.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Lambchop is a band at the top of its game. A simple melody, the sound of a plucked guitar string, a word lingered over or broken apart or compressed: From such humble bricks Wagner & Co. build a world where even the most prosaic things—a wasp, a matchbook placed beneath a table leg to keep it from wobbling—are clothed in glory. Nothing happens in these songs, yet everything happens; they hint at possibilities of redemption glimpsed or half-glimpsed out of the corner of the eye.
I dare you not to be captivated by the enchanting “The New Cobweb Summer,” in which piano and guitars spin a sorrowful web that gently ensnares Wagner’s falsetto—brought out only twice on Is a Woman and in both cases but briefly. Or by “My Blue Wave,” a sketch of a torch ballad whose subject seems to be Wagner’s dog, or Wagner’s girl, or both—not that it matters, because the track is as heartbreaking and slow and lovely as a distillation of tears and morphine. Or by “The Old Matchbook Trick,” which is simultaneously slow and propulsive, kind of like “The Weight,” only with puking sailors and the road crew from Embrace instead of Miss Fanny and Chester’s unwanted dog. Laboring in the great tradition of the band-on-the-run song, Wagner paints a romantic picture of touring Europe: “The last thing I remember/About waking up in Kristiansand/Was gagging on my toothbrush/As it brushed across my tongue/And removed a drunken sailor/ Paid his bar and porno bill/Gonna have to fuckin’ hose him down.”
It’s a wonderful moment, but the most wonderful thing about Is a Woman is that, stripped to the bone as it is, even the slightest instrumental flourishes—the tinkling music box that can be heard about halfway through the enthralling “Autumn’s Vicar,” for instance—are given extraordinary heft. “I Can Hardly Spell My Name” features vibes and some over-the-top female background singers “la-la”-ing like something out of easy-listening hell. And “The New Cobweb Summer” comes complete with a great blurting and huffing Serge Chaloff-like baritone-sax riff that never fails to make my ears smile.
As for the playful “D. Scott Parsley,” well, God knows how it made its way onto the album. A bone thrown to diversity, perhaps. With its hippie-jam aura, start-and-stop guitar riffs, and goofy vibes solo, it sounds like the result of Wagner and his musician buddies spending a wasted night at the Mars Hotel sucking on a tank of nitrous oxide. “Hot dog/Guess you really bite my log/Everybody hates me/But assume I’m not around…/I wonder if they love me like you do/Maybe I can suck enough for two,” sings Wagner, just before someone tosses off a squiggly little keyboard riff and the drums kick in in earnest.
A very strange song indeed, as is the disc’s real closer, “Is a Woman,” which maintains its tone of resignation until almost the very end, when it suddenly slips gears and becomes—ack—a reggae tune. Which is, don’t ask me why, the perfect note for this sad and beautiful album to go out on. CP