It's probably as difficult to make unprepossessing art as it is to give vent to the kind of egotistical expression that knocks you over the head with its demands, and no band operating in popular music is more modest than Lambchop. Throughout their 20-year history, the Nashville group has made records that are ambitious without being overt about it. The brainchild of singer and songwriter Kurt Wagner, Lambchop specializes in music that is as gently confounding as an unfamiliar hotel room in the nicest section of a big city — on their new full-length Mr. M, the band walks lightly through a perilous landscape.
Mr. M is Lambchop's 11th full-length, although the band has released plenty of tour-only singles and appeared on such compilations as 2002's Total Lee! The Songs of Lee Hazelwood. Produced by Wagner and longtime collaborator Mark Nevers at Nevers' Nashville studio, Beech House, Mr. M is perhaps the band's most accomplished work to date. It's a mature record that represents a new way of recording for the group.
"We've tried a lot of different approaches," Wagner says. "This current record, we definitely went about it in a much more assemblage type of way. It started out very sparse and open and minimal. On every record, we try to come up with an approach that we hope is fresh for us as a band."
For Nevers — a onetime toiler in the trenches of mainstream country music and a lover of punk rock — Mr. M is the result of musical subtraction. "It was me gettin' to be Brian Eno — we piled so much shit on there that when it came time to start pulling away, we didn't even want to get to that point," says Nevers. "But it's always based around Kurt's voice and guitar."
Born on Oct. 5, 1958, in Bethesda, Md., Wagner came to Nashville when he was 2 years old. The aspiring musician went to school in Memphis in the late 1970s, when the likes of Tav Falco's Panther Burns were making experimental sounds that inspired Wagner's early bands. "We used to open up for the Panther Burns and a lot of acts that were playing in The Well, which later became The Antenna Club," remembers Wagner.
After changing their name from Posterchild, Lambchop began playing and recording in Nashville in the early 1990s. "When we started out, there were only a few bands that approached things the way we did," Wagner says. "At the time, I think that was a fairly rare thing in Nashville."
Often tagged as a band attempting to rework the conventions of 1960s and '70s countrypolitan record production, Lambchop is harder to pin down than that definition would allow. "We referenced that stuff, yeah, and we were from Nashville, so it occurred to me early on that were these conceptual things we could draw upon," Wagner says. "It was exciting to look at it from a production point of view."
Mr. M features string arrangements along with Tony Crow's piano and Ryan Norris' keyboards and guitar. The record is given an extra dimension with the addition of background vocals by Cortney Tidwell, with whom Wagner released last year's KORT full-length — a tribute to Nashville's long-ago Chart Records label.
I've never heard Lambchop as country music, although Wagner mentions "the overweight Garth Brooks" on 1996's How I Quit Smoking and references country star Jimmy Dickens on the new record's "Nice Without Mercy." Wagner's songs are allusive bits of pathos and bathos that seem concerned with such big subjects as memory, love and travel.
You may hear hints of Scott Walker's approach throughout Mr. M — the tempos are moderate and the harmonic language languid. "Gone Tomorrow" sports an instrumental section that hurries to get where it actually never ends up, and that's as good a definition of the band's music as any.
Wagner's voice has gained finesse over the years, and his songwriting is at a peak throughout the record. Whatever his ostensible subject, he seems fascinated by communication itself. "Basically, it's just songwriting," he says. "It always seems like the stronger and deeper the emotion is, the harder it is to articulate."
Guys it's because he's black.
Damn good band. Wish they'd release that mashup as an mp3 or something, it's cool.
Chuck Mead is one Nashville's top 10 treasures. BR-549's performances at Robert's were a key…
The is getting better each year---really cool and unique