Sunday, April 5, 2009


On heavy listening rotation this week has been Lambchop, the Nashville TN band fronted by singer-songwriter Kurt Wagner. When Lambchop started out, it (I should probably say "he" since Lambchop = Wagner) was labeled “alt-country” -- probably thanks to the hometown more than anything. Others have called it “country soul” and one critic labeled the band as a “freak-chamber-country collective” (which seems off-the-mark so sorry I mentioned it). Some of Lambchop's later material even veers into what might be called "neo-lounge."

As a band, Lambchop has had a rotating lineup of musicians through the years, growing to as large as 20 members to create a “big band” sound behind what are otherwise quiet and subtle songs. When I first heard Wagner's deep, rumbly mumbly voice, it seemed oddly familiar. Then it came to me: Cat Stevens (Yusef Islam) from “Tea for the Tillerman” days (a favorite album when I was a teen). Someone called Wagner “one of the greatest of the bad singers,an unassuming master of phrasing," and said, "though you might barely discern a line in the vocal rumble, the way he occludes and reveals can be felt.” Oddball, quirky voices seem to be popular in indie music these days, though more often pitched up close to or in falsetto range.

I admit that I’ve not yet listened closely enough to crack the code to decipher most of Wagner’s lyrics. Wagner has said, "I use language in a reckless, abstracted splatter of phrase and meaning that somehow comes together through association with the music.” Fair enough -- it's National Poetry Month after all.

Lambchop has developed a sizeable, semi-cultlike following, so there are many lousy YouTube videos shot by camera phone out there. I did find a decent version of “Up with People” from the band’s “Nixon” album. I particularly like the rhythm guitar part that chops away like a metronome, reminding me of Steve Cropper from Booker T and the MGs (I'll have to get to them one of these days). The horn breaks are pretty sweet too.

Here’s Wagner performing a solo version of his song, “Slipped, Dissolved and Loosed” decked out in his signature seed cap and thick-rimmed glasses. (This was clearly filmed in a hotel room somewhere, and since I finally got around to watching "No Country for Old Men" on DVD last night, I kept expecting Javier Bardem to burst into the room with guns ablaze as I watched it).

Here's Wagner with a cover of Dylan’s “You’re a Big Girl Now,” which demonstrates nicely his interesting phrasing and quirky voice.

If you want more, NPR has posted a 28 minute video of Wagner from its “Tiny Desk Sessions.” OPB Radio also has audio from an in-studio session with Wagner.

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