Review: Lambchop – Mr. M
Published on February 9th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
The buzz: An album of songs that started out as a series of paintings, Lambchop main man Kurt Wagner has dedicated his band’s eleventh studio album to late friend and musical collaborator Vic Chestnutt, who passed away on Christmas Day 2009. Wagner explained of Mr. M’s genesis…
“As I worked, I was approached by Mark Nevers [former full time band member & producer for the likes of Andrew Bird and Will Oldham] with the idea of making another Lambchop record. He had a concept of a sound and a method that worked with the tone of my writing. His idea was a kind of ‘psycha-Sinatra’ sound, one that involved the arranging of strings and other sounds in a more open and yet complex way.
“It was a studio creation, not a type of recording based on band performance, and this was a radical approach for us. I felt Lambchop had one more good record in us, and this time I was going to do things as directly and true to my desires as possible.”
“If Not I’ll Just Die”
Sounds like: A more sombre and contemplative affair than its predecessor, 2008’s relatively light-hearted OH (Ohio), Mr. M nevertheless warms and hugs like a great big warming hug. “If Not I’ll Just Die” is a superb opening track, wrong-footing the listener with a dramatic string section before melting into a soft, jazzy number worthy of Nat King Cole. “Grampa’s coughing in the kitchen,” croons Wagner with a world-weary yet benevolent form of total control, “but the strings sound good/Maybe add some flute.” You can’t help but feel like it should be snowing outside when you listen to this, such is the domestic fireside feel conjured by the combination of tinkling ivories, shimmering strings (courtesy of Peter Stopschinski and Mason Neely) and that majestic voice.
These songs may be the products of Wagner’s grieving for Chestnutt, but the joys keep on coming for the listener. “2B2” could hardly be described as being perky, but the way Wagner’s suddenly-double-tracked vocal catches the gently lunging drums could almost be hailed as groovy were it not so gosh darn sleepy. “Gone Tomorrow” introduces sweet, fingerpicked folk to a psychedelic wig-out that reminds a touch of Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, except with extra added “I Am the Walrus” strings and buzzing tanpura drone, while the intricately punctuated “Mr. Met” wears aforementioned piano ‘n’ strings combo like spots of sunlight on a wall. Have we used the word ‘gorgeous’ yet?
Though lacking Wagner’s endlessly listenable pipes, instrumental “Gar” somehow manages to be one of the most enjoyable tracks on the album, blissing out jazzily as harmonised female voices “ooh” away like glistening musical rock pools, the sweetest siren song. There’s even a flute chucked into this luxurious mix along the way, as if belatedly taking up our temporarily absent overlord on an earlier suggestion.
“Nice Without Mercy” stops just short of drifting off mid-song, but those who manage to avoid being lulled into sleep shall be rewarded with the rueful yet lyrically entertaining “Buttons” (“I used to know your girlfriend, back when you used to have a girlfriend/She was nice and you were not, but I was the big prick back then too”), while those who did submit to the somnambulant pace may be awoken by the arrival of an electric guitar mid-way through the otherwise fluttery and country-folk-ish “The Good Life (is wasted)”.
A second instrumental piece, entitled “Betty’s Overture”, comes over all sassy with horn, fuzz bass and something resembling a musical saw – all of which serves as another welcome perk-up following the elegiac stroll of “Kind Of” (“Speak now love to me of your return/It’s not how much you make, but what you earn”) – and the curtain is drawn with the doleful cello and exquisite chord progression (dig the velvet glove-clad punch to the midriff that is that shift to the 7th) of “Never My Love”, which makes the wonderful play of bringing an album that began with a wryly delivered “Don’t know what the fuck they talk about” to a close with such disarming lines as “Love, I’d never thought about it/Just a silly word that people use/Love, my stupid love”.
Oh, and those otherworldly female “oohs” return to the fray for one last hurrah, as if gathered by the door waving us goodbye like so many loving family members (granted that imagery is pretty much the polar opposite of the ‘siren’ reference made earlier; just go with it).
If one is to take Wagner at his word that Lambchop only had one more good record in them, then Rocksucker is pleased to announce that they’ve succeeded in making it. On this evidence, however, that may have been a veiled spot of self-deprecation the likes of which may be rolled out again in the future. Mr. M may be a record borne of loss, but it sure is a gift. Postscript: it appears that the ‘one more good album’ thing was taken out of context, if the final question and answer of this interview with Q Magazine is anything to go by.
Lambchop Mr. M tour trailer
In a few words: Melancholic yet life-affirming, wry yet affectionate, understated yet luxurious. A triumph.
Kind of like a cross between: Leonard Cohen and Burt Bacharach