Critics' Picks

Deanna Varagona of Lambchop

Deanna Varagona of Lambchop

Billed as the new sound of Nashville, Lambchop must have a very different vision of what musical heritage means: Having as much -- or as little -- in common with No Depression as with young country, the band has a lineage that runs farther, wider, and weirder. With its roots in '90s college rock, '60s country pop, and Stax Records soul, the 13-piece indie orchestra has offered its own skewed version of such diverse genres over a good part of the last decade. Add some touches of Deep South surrealism and gestures to easy-listening arrangements, and you have a very strange account of cultural folklore, something akin to Flannery O'Connor, Burt Bacharach, and Superchunk swilling moonshine on the back porch.

It should hardly be surprising, then, that Lambchop's latest full-length, Nixon, sounds like a revisionist history of its influences, as subliminal themes lie just below the surface of the smooth, seamless compositions. Not so idiosyncratically over-the-top as in the past (when song titles the likes of "Soaky in the Pooper" and "My Face Your Ass" were not uncommon), Lambchop has taken a more subtle method to its madness, as it did on its breakthrough effort, 1998's What Another Man Spills. The new album further refines Lambchop's uncanny aesthetic by dressing up its eccentricities in a false sense of tranquility and normalcy: Washing out off-color oddities and twangy accents with suave orchestration and considered sophistication, Nixon is eerie in its Muzak-like calm, unsettling in its careful, measured tones. Like on "You Masculine You," which opens to a tasteful intro and a flourish of strings only to give way to singer-composer Kurt Wagner's disturbingly earnest vocals. Same goes for "What Else Could It Be?," where the brisk brass parts and Wagner's fragile falsetto create a startling contrast of moods and a clever play of textures.

But it is by tipping its hand, however, that Lambchop really shows the nuances of its craft. Despite its tongue-in-cheek title, the album's centerpiece, "Up With People," doubles back on the band's perverse sense of humor, offering simple solace as Wagner croons about "a kinda welfare state of the soul" amidst a shiny horn refrain and a pretty choral backdrop. And on the deliberately paced "Nashville Parent," Lambchop's sympathetic side comes through most clearly in understatement: When Wagner delivers the line "Try to spit on the sidewalk / Instead you wipe it off your chest" in a plainspoken way, he hits just the right note of melancholy absurdity. Appropriately enough, the song proves that Lambchop often makes its biggest impact when you least expect it.

Arnold Pan

 
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