Lambchop The Decline of Country and Western Civilization, Part II: The Woodwind Years

[Merge; 2006]

Styles: alt-country, Americana, soul, chamber pop
Others: Smog, Tindersticks, Silver Jews, Magnetic Fields

About halfway through The Decline of Country and Western Civilization, Part II: The Woodwind Years, "Alumni Lawn" sidles in with its burpy organ and easygoing clarinet (woodwinds, eh?), functioning as an example of a heretofore unrealized genre — geriatric lounge pop. It's not just reminiscent of soft radio pop of the '40s or '50s, but rather, it's that sound being reapproached now, a half century later. In my estimation, the only thing that kept this lovely nugget from burning up the nursing home hit parade is Kurt Wagner's lyrics, which, let's face it, are a beast that cannot be tamed. This is the rub with Lambchop. Their genre-bending ways are always well-conceived and executed, yet never pitched toward an audience that will easily love those sounds. Instead, they rely on the schmaltzy hipster: the one who loves Burt Bacharach, Conway Twitty, and Tom Waits just as much as Sonic Youth, Stereolab, and The High Llamas — in other words, as refined a bunch of pop dirtbags as possible.

As long as I live, I can't imagine ever finding Kurt Wagner's voice anything short of bewitching. I can still remember the first time I encountered it, when, in preparation for my college radio show, I listened to Thriller. The timbre of his voice seemed rather thin at first, but I listened on, compelled by wanting to hear how a song called "My Face Your Ass" would sound. Before long, I found its gravelly texture increasingly pleasing — enough so that by the end of the record, I wanted to hear it again. Granted, it's a love-or-hate voice like those of Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, so some will never be as enamored as I am. I'm just glad that I'm one of the fortunate ones.

Of course, if the songs themselves weren't constructed and arranged so beautifully by the extremely talented and malleable ensemble of up to 16 musicians, Wagner's voice might never find any audience. And it is the versatility of the ensemble that is showcased with this collection and its predecessor, Tools in the Dryer. Unlike that album, The Decline reviews a briefer span of time, but the range of experimentation is no less broad. From the aforementioned schmaltz pop to the faux drum and bass of "Two Kittens Don't Make A Puppy," I was constantly reminded of the apparent ease with which Lambchop assumes so many musical identities. The early alternate versions of a few of the tracks from Nixon and Thriller beautifully highlight how the songs can work in a barer setting while simultaneously illuminating how much the careful arrangements ultimately enhance them. For someone new to Lambchop, I might suggest starting with one of their more polished studio efforts, but for those who have already fallen under Wagner & Co.'s spell, this is some welcome insight into their achievements and processes.

1. My Cliché
2. Loretta Lung
3. Two Kittens Don't Make A Puppy
4. It's Impossible
5. Ovary Eyes
6. I Can Hardly Spell My Name
7. The Scary Caroler
8. Your Life As A Sequel
9. Smuckers
10. Alumni Lawn
11. Burly and Johnson
12. Mr. Crabby
13. Playboy, The Shit
14. Gloria Leonard
15. The Old Fat Robin
16. The Distance From Her To There
17. The Book I Haven't Read
18. Gettysburg Address

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