Lambchop’s mix of musical genres still likely creates headaches for retailers when the shelves are being stocked. Even though the band’s lineup changes frequently (singer and lyricist Kurt Wagner being the obvious exception), the band has nevertheless developed a signature sound: a challenging and unique blend of country, alternative rock, folk, lounge, jazz, soul, and Antarctic steel drumming (well, maybe not this one yet). Coupled with Wagner’s untraditional voice – sometimes whispered or spoken or sung in such a way that it sounds like the words are being choked out from his throat and might not quite make it –it’s tough to think of many bands that incorporate so many disparate styles without sounding like a wretched mess of noise.
Their latest album, OH (ohio), continues this tradition of genre bending and is perhaps the band’s most melodic and understated album since 1996’s How I Quit Smoking. The first few songs float along at a relaxed, breezy, and mellow pace, with the band establishing both the tempo and instrumental quirks that run through much of the record. Opening track “Ohio” unfolds slowly with a subtle piano and guitar melody, with background vocals accompanying Wagner as he sings a variation on an old country conceit that “green doesn’t matter when you’re blue.” Second song “Slipped Dissolved and Loosed” likewise follows this pattern, utilizing another textured blend of guitar, keyboards, and background vocals.
Other songs have no background vocals but move at a similar restrained pace, this time placing the emphasis on Wagner’s voice as it alternately sings with or in front of the instruments. He kinda sorta croons on “Of Raymond,” which also features subdued horns and keyboards that provide additional textures to the song. “A Hold Of You” and closing song “I Believe In You” are also noticeably downbeat and slow; the former song also shows a touch of irony as Wagner sings that he’s “such a bad enunciator.”
Some of the faster songs provide a nice change of pace for the album. The humorously-titled “National Talk Like a Pirate Day” and “Sharing a Gibson with Martin Luther King Jr.” are two such examples. Yet “Popeye” is a separate beast altogether. The album’s most experimental song – and those who like their Lambchop obtuse will likely get giddy over this one – its first few minutes lull the listener in with quiet keyboards and Wagner’s hushed vocals, unexpectedly giving way to a manic swirl of instrumental noise that comes on like a kick upside the head. Maybe it’s the sound of Popeye finally getting his spinach, who the hell knows.
As is to be expected with a Lambchop album, Wagner’s lyrics are vague. Perhaps not as obtuse as Nixon – supposedly a concept album that even included a related bibliography, it nevertheless doesn’t appear to have any solid connection whatsoever to the former president – the songs are nevertheless wide open to interpretation.
Themes of loneliness, aging, and separation are implied throughout the album, such as in “Ohio” and “Popeye.” Of course, the cause of the narrator’s woe is anyone’s guess; Wagner might as well be singing the blues because he’s lost his favorite trucker hat. “I’m Thinking of a Number (between 1 and 2)” covers this ground as well, albeit with heavy dose of bleakness and a pretty twisted sense of humor. If a sense of devotion is implied (“We can hold one another until the other is gone”), it comes with a catch as Wagner sings that “I won’t tell you that love is a variable thing/like the shape of your ass that I noticed when you walked away from me.”
It’s an interesting balancing act; the songs are detailed enough to offer hints of their themes and broader context, but the listener must be careful to avoid bastardizing the songs with the kind of wild interpretations usually reserved for college lit courses. Telling images and phrases are used to create a mood and provide glimpses into the songs themselves – “newspapers in an empty basket,” “the topography of your mind,” “a cocktail which consisted of his gin and her vermouth” – but only a fool would claim to know exactly what these songs are about.
OH (ohio) is a quietly insistent album. Though Wagner’s unique style of singing will make listeners lean in a bit more closely to understand the words, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, even though the music retailers still won’t be able to categorize the band.