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Artist: Lambchop


Label: self-released

Review date: Mar. 31, 2002

One of my neighbors, evidently enjoying the halcyon days of retirement, spends every early evening, weather permitting, on a folding plastic chair in front of his apartment building. Replete with transistor radio and Members Only jacket, he observes the passing phenomenon of nightfall and its haphazardly scripted participants, engaging when prompted, but mostly just watching. Kurt Wagner has always seemed content with a similar role. And while his own radio may rest in a nearby magnolia tree, he’s achieved something elusive to numerous, more self-conscious lyricists drafting paper-dummy pronouns of females in orange sweaters, likely no farther away than asleep on the couch. Wagner’s characters, male and female, are the products of emotional distance, more signifiers of an underlying scar than progenitors of autonomous action: he has successfully placed himself in the background of tragedy and romance. How the songwriter, like the poet, attained objectivity (Wagner’s publishing company is entitled Pathetic Hindsight) is of secondary relevance, and the implications nonetheless devastating, emblematic of a man content with the pangs of sentimental voyeurism.

And so, after years of quiet passivity on a Nashville porch, of covering Curtis Mayfield and East River Pipe tunes as the underscore of vicarious observation, the spectator has arrived at the unsettling confidence of a premature middle age. Recent Lambchop affairs, such as the brilliant Nixon and this year’s Is a Woman, have dispensed with the homage to soul and indie legends, and both albums reflect a greater degree of thematic continuity, with Wagner quite comfortable in his role of singular mouthpiece and prophet of doom. Treasure Chest of the Enemy, the band’s new self-released tour album, lacks the essential cohesion of their recent releases, but neither is it a b-sides collection (which already appeared last fall with Tools in the Dryer). For their current tour, Wagner has stripped the Lambchop lineup down to a six-piece, and Treasure Chest, while likely the fruits of the group’s rehearsals, yields austerity as an unfettered triumph, like the airy antithesis to the Merge release.

If my venture at the obscure origins of the material is accurate, the tour CD could suitably be labeled a mixed bag. Opening with an intricately adept version of FM radio mayhem, the album moves into some interesting territories, and largely remains there. Many of the ten tracks lay claim to indie creds that Wagner has ironically abandoned on recent efforts: “We Shall Not Be Overcome” is reminiscent of a pop-minded Velvet Underground, and the brush breaks on “Yard Work” tread heavily on Yo La Tengo’s Fakebook aesthetic. Wagner’s own personality, typically many degrees removed, is more present, and the ten songs reflect a stylistic diversity that makes the composite less deliberate than the last several Merge LPs. Lambchop mines the potential of melancholia for the disc’s highlights, as in the quiet despair of minor chords on “Flub,” the closing track. “Greylines in Heaven” recalls the lilting beauty of the band’s early ballads, constructing a frail vessel for abstract observation and episodic imagery. Treasure Chest of the Enemy creates an interesting cross-section of the Lambchop oeuvre, and offers Kurt Wagner in a new variety of positions, on the basketball court, in cardiac arrest, but still in the porch seat.

By Tom Roberts

Other Reviews of Lambchop

Is a Woman

Aw C'mon / No You C'mon

OH (ohio)

Mr. M

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