Country is number one. Lambchop plays rock ‘n’ roll

Dylan Ris

The 18 or so members of Lambchop (it varies from year to year) have spent their collective careers marketing themselves as a country act. This bizarre claim recalls Jon Spencer’s claim to be a blues musician; if Lambchop shares a genre with Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, look for Spencer to be jamming with Buddy Guy at Legend’s this weekend.

Yet in Spencer’s case, there came a point where he started to clarify his music. “The blues is number one, but I play rock & roll!” he fondly explained to concertgoers on his 1998 tour. He had figured himself out.

Lambchop also plays rock & roll, albeit at a much lower volume than Spencer, or just about anyone, does. They employ a steel guitarist and they consistently plug the Country Music Hall of Fame in their albums’ liner notes, but the actual songs have almost nothing to do with genuine country music.

Yet while I can tell you quite firmly that Lambchop isn’t a country act, I’m not sure I could tell you just what they are instead. They care deeply for texture and ambiance. Every recording from their debut, I Hope You’re Sitting Down, to this year’s charming Is A Woman, features gentle melodies, hyper-delicate arrangements and some unsettling left-field poetry for those who follow along.

They also play tricks in a way few country artists dare. Their creative highpoint, 1997’s Thriller, included “Your Fucking Sunny Day,” a brutal combination of irresistible pop with viciously sardonic lyrics and a kiss-off delivery. Last year’s unfortunate Tools in the Dryer compilation forced listeners to endure every smarmy experiment the collective ever attempted.

But Is A Woman can only be the work of a band that aims to please. It sounds at once spare and ornate, probably because there really is a lot going on, but all of it is played so quietly. Meanwhile, frontman/songwriter Kurt Wagner seems resolved to reign himself in a bit. “Lots of practice, I guess,” he sings, “Some day we will all be editors.”

On Is A Woman’s weaker moments, the results of Lambchop’s gentle treatment sound not so much refined as conservative. Specifically, Wagner’s vocal melodies rarely stand out; he’s stretched the same half-octave range over so many songs over the years that it can be hard to remember individual tunes and almost impossible to sing along.

By contrast, the instrumental phrasing is uniformly wonderful, recalling everyone from Mercury Rev (“Caterpillar”) to Burt Bacharach (“The Daily Growl”). Everyone, that is, who isn’t a country artist.

In the moments where the vocals live up to their backing figures (“Flick,” “Bugs”), Is A Woman is truly sublime. Neither twangy nor rocking, it offers sounds that don’t come from bands constrained by genre.

Don’t be disappointed if Lambchop’s identity crisis misled you. True, you won’t be hearing any country music, but you’re actually getting something much better. nyou