In Brooklyn, Lambchop Coast on a Faint, Humble Breeze

April 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

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Kurt Wagner, of Lambchop, at the Bell House in Brooklyn. (photo: Monica So)

“So we’re just gonna keep bumming you out.” It could have been a snatch of dialogue or interior monologue from any of the songs he sang before or after, but this was Kurt Wagner’s way of introducing “N.O.,” a song by his band Lambchop, from one of its earlier incarnations. Though older than most of the material that brought the band—a come-and-go collective since the early ‘90s—to the Bell House in Brooklyn last Friday, the song merged unflinchingly with its surrounding pieces.

It began with soft strokes of guitars and brushes on drums: a careful surrounding to lyrics packaging impressions of squalor and vice right from the opening couplet. “This is not New Orleans / No party in my head,” Wagner began, the words trickling out in a hollow shudder, the vowels rounded, their consonants clipped.

Like everything else the bandleader sang that evening it invited the crowd to lean closer. But keeping the room in this state was Wagner’s way of making sure his audience was paying attention, too. Like during “2B2,” a typically windswept and loosely-rooted country ballad from Mr. M (Merge), where Wagner recounts reeling in Christmas decorations on February 31st—don’t look for it on your calendar.

Those turns of phrase and sidelong glances are what keep Wagner’s songs from suffocating in their darker moments, which, as he acknowledged, are prevalent. And the music—staid and nebulous, blown along by the gentle breeze of the bandleader’s baritone—ensures those lyrics remain the foremost surface. That’s as true as ever with Mr. M, the Nashville group’s latest and best release. But its tracks also find a great deal of therapy in the drones and sonic unions construed by usual producer Mark Nevers, and equal nourishment in the string arrangements by Mason Neely and Peter Stopschinski.

These lush treatments were absent from Lambchop’s performance here in Brooklyn. They were echoed faithfully at points though, as in the vacuum-like thud closing “Gone Tomorrow,” or the voice-message interceding the instrumental interlude of “2B2.” Triggering these audio landmarks was keyboardist and guitarist Ryan Norris, whose input rarely exceeded a faint, top layer. The same could have been said for anyone in the five-member arrangement in which Lambchop is currently touring. Matthew Swanson’s bass-lines were more suggestive than they were a harmonic engine, while drummer Scott Martin stuck to brushes to preserve Wagner’s clarity.

Their harmony was hushed, suitable for the constituency of tracks from Mr. M, which comprised the bulk of the set. Where that album’s richness distinguishes it from its predecessors this performance underlined their similarities. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the highlight of the evening arrived in “My Blue Wave” from Lambchop’s sixth record, Is A Woman. An unhurried elegy, it grew taut with tension as macabre matters encroached upon innocent characters, its thickly ordered chords ripening in lockstep.

Just as he had all evening, Wagner played and sang with bodily motion. He rocked in his seat with his acoustic guitar, cradling it, shaking it; letting some ideas ring, playing others closer to the vest. Before they arrived to a final chord Wagner stuck one that was out sync with the others, introducing an element of suspense neither he nor the band intended. It also injected the moment with a humility that tied it together with every song that came before or after, and made the resolution of the next and final chord that much more human.

—M. Sean Ryan (April 22, 2012)

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