Kurt Wagner has been repeating the same few bars of tinkering piano chords for 11 albums of his musical collective, Lambchop. With, one imagines, a martini atop the baby grand and blue cigarette smoke rising from an ashtray, Wagner composes music that combines a 1001 Strings session, an old Stax soul record, and an excursion in progressive lounge.
At the intro of Lambchop’s new release Mr. M, it’s apparent that the album will focus on luscious orchestral strings as the music gently dips into what sounds like (brace yourself) Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song.” Wagner’s smoky voice soon interrupts with “don’t know what the fuck they talk about,” in the same nine syllables where chestnuts were roasting on an open fire.
And then it’s off to the la-la land of Lambchop, where Wagner’s soothing, slightly off-kilter vocals sound like someone counting sheep on their way to a twilight zone dreamland, and where a fine line is drawn between the cosmic and the mundane. “It was their last night on the continent,” he sings, like a spirited Cat Stevens, in “Gone Tomorrow.” But just as I’m envisioning European vacationers donning parasols and carousing the continent, he observes, “it looks like water comes from somewhere else.”
An odd thing to say, but in a heartbeat I understood “water coming from somewhere else” to be an H. G. Wells-like observation of ancient aliens surveying a young planet Earth. Maybe I’ve spent too many weekends with The History Channel’s Ancient Aliens. But – far out, man.
A host of fuzzy audio sound bites at various levels of sound lure, startle, and grab the listener as if David Lynch had dropped the needle on an aged cursed 78 rpm record. Is that someone chopping wood or the swatting of a flyswatter? A knock at the door or the beating of my heart? A raspy decrepit voice from the telephone line or from beyond? Earphones enhance this ghostly experience, and had me second-guessing which sounds were coming from the speakers and which were naturally outside my iPod.
The album is dedicated to James Victor Chestnutt (“Vic”), a celebrated American songwriter and performer who died in 2009. He collaborated with Lambchop on his 1998 album The Salesman and Bernadette. The sense of loss runs throughout the album but it is not without an enchantment. “And the warm comes back, even though I thought it would not,” Wagner sings in “Nice Without Mercy.”
If there’s a glitch to the album, it’s in the patchwork instrumental passages which are at times trite. The exception is “Betty’s Overture,” an homage to another fallen musical hero, Elliot Smith, and his lovely haunting song “Son of Sam.” But the lengthy instrumental end to “Gone Tomorrow” is superfluous and unloving and sounds like it was tacked on unceremoniously. It should have been replaced with the lazy summery “Gar,” which sits vulnerably at the center of the album like a lost Sergio Mendes track.
But the rewards far outweigh the quibbles. There’s enough soul mining here to last far into summer. Dig it.