Lambchop / Josh Rouse

Is a Woman (Merge) / Under Cold Blue Stars (Slow River/Rykodisc)

Had the singular pleasure last week of hearing Is a Woman, the new album by the avant-country outfit Lambchop, in its perfect setting, standing in a 45-minute line at the post office, waiting to send a certified letter to my mom. If you're not familiar with Lambchop, or only know that the band numbers, like, 47 members and that a lot of people think they sound like Curtis Mayfield, you may not get my drift. But if you've spent time with the Nashville-based act's work, thrilled by the way front man Kurt Wagner twists his homely front-porch observations into weird, Southern-gothic haiku as tangled as kudzu, you'll appreciate what I mean: The sweaty Russian woman behind me kept asking me why she wore her fake-fur floor-length on a night like this; the weary employee at the second window yawned as his shift wound to a slow close; the Argentinean kid up ahead bugged the cop on duty at least a dozen times, begging him to play tag while the kid's dad with the big duct-taped package just tapped his foot. And all while Wagner and his band spun what's becoming their typical gold right into my inner ear, perfectly framing the atmosphere of just-slightly-offness with a silken, slowly unspooling swath of elegant twang-soul.

It's a quieter glow than that on 2000's strings-enhanced Nixon, focusing mostly on piano and acoustic guitar (and a silvery patina of undulating white noise), but the impact is actually heightened, Wagner's monologues given more air to breathe. "I can flick a cigarette butt further and with more accuracy," he croaks on "Flick," before describing "an upside-down wire heart being sucked into a periscope." The Russian lady with the fake fur, I've no doubt, would understand completely.

Soaked in the new one from Wagner's pal and occasional writing partner Josh Rouse (see: Chester, their 1999 five-song collab) is a pretty appropriate locale, too: home. The fellow Nashvillian sings about home a lot, even named his last record after the place; he picks up right where he left off on Under Cold Blue Stars, his third album of cozy, tuneful folk-pop: "Home is where I always want to be/Home is there for you and is for me/Home is where I never want to leave," he sings on "Nothing Gives Me Pleasure," a tune that like most on Stars flutters with R.E.M.'s jangle and bubbles with Big Star's warmth. Like Wagner, Rouse is drawn to the minutiae of everyday life--Stars ostensibly charts a fictional relationship between two 1950s Midwesterners, according to more adroit listeners--but he's not as interested in its peculiarities, illuminating instead its sad, reassuring familiarity--just try to ogle at the bankrupt farmer in the title track who's taken to playing guitar in the local bar. Consider this one for those days when even the post office seems a little much.

 
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