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Lambchop - Is a Woman

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Artist: Lambchop

Album: Is a Woman

Label: Merge

Review date: Mar. 31, 2002

Anything you read about the Nashville-based band Lambchop will most assuredly mention what is in some circles a term about as well received as “emo”: country music. Not that such a mention is a bad thing necessarily, for the band most definitely has more in common with Hank Williams and Merle Haggard than, say, labelmates The Ladybug Transistor or The Clean. But still, such consistent referencing to one style has allowed people to ignore the fact that over the course of six albums, this ever-expanding group fronted by Kurt Wagner has not only transcended the limitations imposed by that term, but also grown to encompass so many other styles of music. Indeed, albums like What Another Man Spills found the band covering both Curtis Mayfield and East River Pipe without batting an eye, showcasing both ends of their dynamic extremes. Their last full-length, Nixon, was steeped in layers of gorgeous soul in addition to the usual country tinges that showed a band confidently developing their own style.

At first listen, then, Lambchop’s new disc Is A Woman seems almost like a step backwards. The gospel choirs are gone, as are most of the horn and string sections. Hell, on most songs any semblance of a strong backbeat is missing as well. However, despite Warner and company’s newfound and somewhat peculiar interest in the understated, this is perhaps the strongest Lambchop release to date, a record that not only sees Kurt Wagner turning in his best and most cohesive batch of songs ever, but also finds him learning that they best way to make a record doesn’t always involve a fourteen piece band on every track. Indeed, Wagner’s arrangements for his songs definitely benefit from his newfound appreciation for subtlety.

From the beginning of “The Daily Growl”, the lead track on the album, the tone is set by the complementary phrasings of Tony Crow’s piano playing and Wagner’s hushed guitar strums. The track builds simply from this beginning, adding layers of guitars to complement the laidback strut of the song itself. Most of the songs on this record are constructed in this way. “The New Cobweb Summer” uses the same piano and guitar interplay to form the basis for the song as well, allowing background ambience to build along with a gentle rhythmic structure and the occasional saxophone flourish. As opposed to previous records, none of the songs on this album open themselves up right away. It’s only through listening to the tracks as a whole does the full picture of each one’s direction emerge. “I Can Hardly Spell My Name” gently builds to its chorus with ethereal female backing vocals, and on tracks like “Flick,” it’s the simplistic percussion elements and the spaced-out guitar touches that drive the song.

With each previous record expanding on the sounds of the prior one, it might dishearten some to hear that such full-blown ensemble recordings are not present on this disc. In fact, the most aggressive song is heard at the conclusion, as “Is a Woman” fades the album out on mid-tempo reggae backbeat and Wagner’s trademark crooning.

Wagner’s lyrics are also some of the best he’s ever penned, be it in the almost surreal imagery of “The New Cobweb Summer”, the repeated downers of “My Blue Wave”, or the recollection of sharing a bus with the road crew of Embrace (no, not the good one) in “The Old Matchbook Trick." While much has been made in the past of the fact that the band now features no less than thirteen other people on their records, it becomes obvious with each repeated listen that it’s still Kurt Wagner’s show, one in which he’s developed songwriting chops potent enough to allow for such a mellow understated record to not only be made, but be made convincingly.

Usually, calling a record a “mature” effort is a good way of skirting around calling it a disappointment. However, in this instance, Lambchop has succeeded in making a mature record that not only matches the quality of previous efforts, but in most cases, surpasses it as well. If previous efforts were akin to an ecstatic night spent under the influence of soulful harmonies, then this is the early morning comedown at the local piano bar.

By Michael Crumsho

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