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Mellow Gold

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Lambchop

Is a Woman

(Merge)

Over the course of six increasingly accomplished albums, Lambchop has wandered freely among country, soul, muted psychedelia, easy listening, space rock, and other assorted varieties of reefer madness. The band's format has been almost as hazy as the genre boundaries, accommodating a membership of at least 14 players who float in and out to augment Kurt Wagner's impressionistic considerations of the mundane as needed. Spare balladry is Lambchop's strength, yet over the years their records have managed to incorporate punchy horn charts, swooping string sections, and choirs of jingle-quality session singers. On the new Is a Woman, though, the Nashville outfit has quieted down considerably, relying mostly on piano-based arrangements elegant enough to give Floyd Cramer goose bumps.

That's not so much a shift as a distillation: Pianist Cramer was the right- (and left- ) hand man of the late Chet Atkins. Atkins has been held largely responsible for the death of country music; few would argue that he wasn't a prodigiously gifted musician, but some have never forgiven him for injecting his own preternatural mellowness into the RCA country stable in the 1960s, changing the way the music was made for many years to come. The aesthetic he birthed came to be known as countrypolitan, a smooth, urbane (i.e., less hillbilly) strain of country, linked to the mainstream "beautiful music" of Percy Faith and Ray Conniff by soothing tempos and sophisticated instrumentation but still identifiably country by virtue of its lingering--and some would argue intensified--pathos. Owen Bradley, whose recordings for Patsy Cline in the early 60s are archetypes of the style, and Billy Sherrill, best known for his work with Tammy Wynette, aided and abetted.

Countrypolitan remained dominant in Nashville until the early 70s, when the outlaw movement, under the hairy, squinting leadership of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, succeeded in its efforts to banish the status quo, chewing on every timeworn convention and spitting out a rowdier, messier, arguably more "real" sound and lifestyle. Atkins's exile from Nashville continues today, though the current generation of Opryland hats is generally more adept at evoking .38 Special than anything having to do with actual country music.

Lambchop has been smuggling the building blocks of the Atkins school back into Nashville, if not back onto Music Row, complementing Wagner's bemusement, regret, and humor with a grab bag of strings, horns, and voices. For Is a Woman, they've come up with a more rudimentary construction that, at first hearing, sounds as though it might not be as effective. Tempo is implied, volume borders on the subaudible, and instrumental swells and flourishes are strategically rationed. Melodies seem to emerge days or weeks after a song begins. It's unlikely Chet Atkins would be rushing Lambchop into the studio--but his spirit glows in the depths of their music. Lambchop courageously surrenders to the rhythmless, moving countrypolitan beyond uptown and into a sultry interior mindscape that actually suits Wagner's words better than anything before it.

Lambchop's recent U.S. tour featured an eight-piece band until the final show, a hometown affair for which they rolled out the complete fourteen-piece orchestra. In this setting the songs took on a different richness, and some of the blanks were filled in. When Wagner, seated as usual, started into "The Daily Growl," his supporting players, most of them also seated, dropped in almost subliminally behind him with a symphony of cinematic effects. An acoustic guitar army strummed reassuringly while spectral pedal steel screamed in the distance; Paul Burch's vibes suggested a Gothic bell choir, and the two-drum, two-bass setup provided an elegant and understated version of the secret Motown rhythm recipe. Sound effects burbled beneath the surface, simultaneously accenting the alienation in Wagner's lyrics and Lambchop's openness to the occasional trendy intrusion. Wagner sing-speaks--Tammy Wynette he ain't--of "a gentle revolution," a potentially apt description of the band's approach, but the song seems to have more to do with a failed relationship or perhaps Internet porn addiction.

Rather than deal with the complexities and contradictions, many critics have lumped Lambchop in with the alternative country crowd. But listen long and close enough and you'll hear the complete history of mellow, from the strains of Nick Drake in "The New Cobweb Summer" to the kinship between "Flicks" and "Alfie" to Upsetters-style rock steady in the outro of the title track. Meanwhile most of their purported contemporaries are bent on producing edgy but ultimately faithful re-creations of songs by the holy trinity of Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and Gram Parsons. It's only in the comparison to Parsons that the tag sticks to Lambchop for a moment. Like Parsons, they see the potential for cross-pollination; they've mapped out a unique orbit, touching on country, rock, and soul in their imagining of the perfect sound. Parsons fearlessly made the case for dragging songs like the Bee Gees' Otis Redding homage "To Love Somebody" into the country canon, and put some twang into James Carr's cheatin' love classic, "Dark End of the Street," finding its inherent structural and thematic sympathy with the likes of Webb Pierce's "Backstreet Affair."

Similarly, it appeared for a while that Lambchop had located the exact coordinates where countrypolitan and 70s soul converged, possibly by mapping the movements of the string sections on their favorite records. That amalgam got its most complete airing on their 1998 LP What Another Man Spills, on which they covered Curtis Mayfield's "Give Me Your Love" and Frederick Knight's "I've Been Lonely for So Long," about a man crying himself to sleep at night because all his friends have abandoned him. That sort of devastating soul dovetails with what Lambchop does, and thankfully it's part of Is a Woman too. Live, the big band put some funky muscle behind "D. Scott Parsley," revealing its debt to Archie Bell & the Drells. By the end of it, Wagner seemed to be fighting the urge to get up out of his chair and get down.

But Lambchop are no more eager to take on the country-soul mantle than they are to carry the dead weight of the alt-country tag. In one recent article, bassist Matt Swanson compares Lambchop to "a very poor man's Pink Floyd." On one hand this seems to run directly contrary to everything one would expect from a Nashville band with a pedal-steel player. But Floydian touches regularly worm their way into the music, in the mildly dissonant swells of "Flick" or the space carousel revolving deep in the background of "Bugs." One is almost tempted to reassess Pink Floyd: viewed through Lambchop's prism, what is "Us and Them" if not a country-soul prototype, Merry Clayton wailing pitifully as the band plunks at a meandering tempo through a song about conflict and isolation?

The Floyd comparison is not without its flaws; it is unlikely that Lambchop will record a concept album documenting society's ills a la The Wall. Wagner's world is unusually small--several songs, like the exquisite "My Blue Wave," chronicle what's happening on his couch--and his focus is on individual characters, whose shortcomings he ticks off with spare, unsparing precision. The band is equally precise, and perhaps better at sharing than the famously contentious Floyds. It's unlikely you will find another band of this size collectively harnessing such a variety of talent in service of a signature sound. In that way, too, Lambchop carries Atkins's legacy into the 21st century--the last of the great adult contemporary orchestras.

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