There’s a sense of charm in the apparent futility of what Nashville alt-country crooner Kurt Wagner has stated as the light premise for Lambchop’s latest FLOTUS: “the initial plan was to make a record that maybe my wife would like. The music she listens to on her phone is often commercial pop, commercial hip-hop — she’s a big Beyoncé fan. I thought, ‘I would love to be in her playlist.’” A cozy and weak iteration of the old trope of the wife, FLOTUS sits in the dying breath of the resignation of women’s political action to the domestic and the intimate (which isn’t to say the powerless; consider sex strikes or the personal autonomy and resistance many housewives subtly expressed through decorative sign-making, as noted by Maria-Alina Asavei in her essay “Art, Politics, and the Question of Effectiveness”). Released at the brink of what seems likely to be the first FLOTUS turned POTUS (this review penned on Friday, November 4, 2016, four days before the harrowing 2016 US presidential election), FLOTUS in its signature indifference and under-spoken character announces change just as inert as the dialectic equilibrium of US politics. Wagner, in his best efforts, doesn’t make the album he hoped to. Past the voicebox and past the sequencer, the songs on FLOTUS are perhaps even more wispy, gentle, and meandering than Lambchop has ever been — algorithms won’t let these close to Beyoncé, despite Wagner’s well-intentioned wishes. For Love Often Turns Us Still, the true meaning of FLOTUS: “It turns out she’s not impressed. […] She prefers the sound of my voice as it is.”
It would be easy to say that country charts are just as much pop as they are country, but it’s not even that. It’s more the case that pop country is hardly country to begin with, instead, a regional and socio-politically directed filter over the model of pop song creation and proliferation. I don’t think it’s too contrary a belief that artists who skirt the line of what country sounds like and can be — a working definition of alt-country — have more in line with the genre’s introverted rambling progenitors — Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt, Bonnie Raitt, John Prine, Hank Williams, and Patsy Cline — than do those who have overworked the formulas to make the grade. Of course, there is no immaculate form of country that doesn’t have Nashville’s fingers in the dirt of it, but navigating a market isn’t the thrill. As our own Elizabeth Newton argued earlier this year (regarding Karl Blau’s Introducing Karl Blau), country is the music of the individual, the ballad of the troubadour that leaves us all remembering how we came to be here. Country is the act of the artist narrating their own career as it unfolds.
Lambchop, in all their experimentation over three decades of activity, have maintained and even refined their style and motive. At first, FLOTUS strikes one as a far left turn, but its ingredients have always been around and, at its core, not much has changed. At its least, it is a recoiled but necessary rebound from 2012’s masterful and self-insistent Mr. M. It’s the album that gets the artist back on his feet with no pretense of reaching new heights, just moving in a new way. The long songs “In Care of 8675309” and “The Hustle” are latent and calmly settled, opposing the indie gimmick of the lengthy time-code as shorthand for impressive feats of ambitious artistry. Most songs on the album dwell without progression or climax, jamming and fading to muzak ambience until the mind jolts them back to the foreground. This is an effect that has been well rehearsed by Lambchop throughout the years, experimenting with repetitive form, unbroken placid textures for long durations, and short phrase repetition. These longer songs from FLOTUS are pop classics echoing in a dream — their namesakes are Tommy Tutone’s “Jenny (867-5309)” and Van McCoy’s “The Hustle” respectively — hardly representing their originators, letting them slip away into the ether between department store racks and checkout lines.
Throughout the album, lyrics are often difficult to discern or yield completely to syllabic riffing and free play with the vocoder’s manipulations. This brings a certain humor to the few lines that comfortably squeak their way out. Take the repeated admission in “JFK,” “Well I talk too much/ yeah, there it is,” or the prophetic announcement that abruptly closes the song over reverent organ: “We must build a culture of understanding/ Just [shout] at the radio/ Because I am a pharmacist.” The comedy of the urgency and grand visions as they are muffled by the vocoder’s imprecision is reminiscent of Neil Young’s (in)famous and cult-classic 1982 experiment Trans, in which he wrestled with his cerebral palsy-inflicted son’s inability to communicate effectively or with ease, even with technological support. Young’s contribution feels to have only recently come of age (lacking reissues in the US and suddenly finding critical relevance here and there), making it an apt precedent for Kurt Wagner’s work here, which also deals with the exportation of familial life.
In the midst of the murk, a hook is offered with “Writer,” a Wild West pop song that finishes the work of the techno remixes that appended vinyl editions of Mr. M, crafting an alternative template for country-pop crossovers that favors the buoyancy and minimalism of the barroom ballad over the ecstatic uncool of the backyard barbecue. The beauty of “Writer” is in recognizing the unlikelihood of such a miscalculated gesture being the particular blend of country and pop that would act as a public exemplar of the possibilities of combining the genres. Try it against, say, the passibility of the collaboration of Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks at last week’s CMAs or pop-country’s less passable but simply marketable flirtations with rap and rock.
It is actually in this flirtation with disaster as it is met with a knack for subtlety that the brilliance of Lambchop has always been and still remains. In their collectedness, Lambchop’s albums often come off as minor masterpieces — not quietly stunning but aesthetically proclamatory, carrying material enough for a listener to stay with and dwell on. FLOTUS is no exception.