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+ {Kurt Wagner} + {HeCTA}

Alt-country’s most “out-there” band of musical renegades (not withstanding The HANDSOME FAMILY), Nashville’s LAMBCHOP had all the meaty ingredients to prove that country music had more to offer than Stetsons and stereotypes. Drawing a shaky line through CHARLIE RICH, LEONARD COHEN and BILL CALLAHAN (incorporating as they did gospel, soul and chamber pop), maverick singer-songwriter Kurt Wagner was the post-90s country-lounge answer to icons CAT STEVENS, NICK DRAKE and TIM HARDIN. Kurt’s hesitant but heavy-lidded vocal monotone sat perfectly against the lethargic drowsiness of the country-jazz played by his larger-than-life backing ensemble.
From 1986, the trio of Wagner, bassist Marc Trovillion and guitarist Jim Watkins (the latter superseded by Bill Killebrew as they geared up for the 90s), LAMBCHOP – or even Posterchild as they were alternatively known – first came to attention of obscurios by unfettering two rare and low-key cassettes under the titles, SECRET SECRET SOURPUSS (1990) {*5} and BIG TUSSIE (1992) {*5} – blink, and one would’ve missed them. On the second of these sets, other alumni were added to the equation: drummer Steve Goodhue, percussionist Allen Lowery, clarinetist/trumpeter Jonathan Marx and washboard/marracas auxiliary C. Scott Chase; their first “official” release came in ‘92/’93 courtesy of Posterchild’s 7-inch vinyl offering alongside Crop Circle Hoax.
The big band element was further endorsed when Paul Niehaus (lap steel guitar, trombone, vocals), John Delworth (organs) and Deanna Varagona (vocals, alto sax, banjo, cello) came on board for the over-cooked/over-looked `Nine’ (b/w `Moody Fucker’) single, in 1993; `My Cliché’ was one of their first, but not their last 45s to find a market outside their long-term liaison at Merge Records.
Although they could hardly be termed contemporary ambassadors of their now all-encompassing genre of choice, LAMBCHOP emerged from the flourishing alt-country scene with I HOPE YOU’RE SITTING DOWN (1994) {*7} – aka “Jack’s Tulips”. A post-modern second-cousin (twice removed!) of straight-laced CHET ATKINS, the record revealed Kurt’s love of vintage string-laden production and his penchant for beer-soaked, meandering tales of ordinary madness. One of three or four songs that stood out from the downbeat wyrd-ness, the uncompromising single `Soaky In The Pooper’ dealt with a suicide in the bath; others to catch the attention were `Because You Are The Very Air He Breathes’, `Let’s Go Bowling’, `Hickey’ and the almost PERE UBU-meets-HOLLY-esque `Hellmouth’.
Early in ‘96, Kurt and LAMBCHOP delivered another collection of near comatose country vignettes, HOW I QUIT SMOKING {*8}, this time around wrapped up in a classic 70s Nashville production sheen courtesy of arranger, John Mock. One of the record’s highlights, `The Man Who Loved Beer’, was issued as the first British-only single and has since been adopted by many an author’s theme tune. An overused term, melancholy was never more attune than with the spook-fest lap-steel nuances of `The Militant’, `For Which We Are Truly Thankful’ and `We Never Argue’. All that aside, the same year also saw the release of a mini-set, the critically-acclaimed live/festival (1995-recorded) HANK {*7}; relaxed audiences no doubt giving Wagner and Co the first ever horizontal standing ovation.
A third nicotine-stained studio album, meanwhile, sauntered on to the scene in 1997, the LAMBCHOP man surely being just a tad ironic in naming it THRILLER {*7}, although opening cuts `My Face Your Ass’ and the re-recorded, cleaned-up take of `Your Sucking Funny Day’, raised the pulse a little. Included also were a triumvirate of EAST RIVER PIPE/F.M. Cornog cuttings: `Hey, Where’s Your Girl?’, `Crawl Away’ and `Superstar In France’.
Prolific as ever, Wagner and his entourage (including fresh drummer Paul Burch) – and they’d all worked on VIC CHESNUTT’s `The Salesman & Bernadette’ – returned with possibly their best album to date, WHAT ANOTHER MAN SPILLS {*8}. Featuring croonsome classic `The Saturday Option’ and the emotionally-jarring `Interrupted’, alongside another couple of covers from the pseudonymous Cornog (`King Of Nothing Never’ and `Life #2’), plus falsettos “high-lights” from the mighty, mighty pens of CURTIS MAYFIELD (`Give Me Your Love (Love Song)’ and FREDERICK KNIGHT (`I’ve Been Lonely For So Long’), there was also a major upbeat arrangement of DUMP’s `It’s Not Alright’.
In the short interim between albums, Burch’s berth was filled by Sam Baker, and in came guitarist William Tyler. The country-soul meets disco connection carried on to the acclaimed NIXON (2000) {*9}, wherein Wagner’s impenetrable songwriting was transformed into (relatively) more intelligible but no less fascinating observations on life’s essential minutiae. As for the (UK Top 40) album title, it was apparently inspired by the infamous ex-American President; LAMBCHOP kindly supplying a reading list of related material on the sleeve. Take for instance minor Brit hit, `Up With People’ (complete with their hilarious and overlooked “Nixon” video), opener `The Old Gold Shoe’, plus the heavenly `Nashville Parent’ and the STYLISTICS-esque `What Else Could It Be’, surely this was truly the album that set Wagner and Co apart from anything remotely similar. Add to that, the gloriously uplifting, `Grumpus’, LAMBCHOP had finally thawed out from just a run-of-the-mill indie-country act.
The band returned with their most intimate and mature album to date, the breezy IS A WOMAN (2002) {*8}. If “Nixon” was, in part, a Saturday night out on the town, then this set was most certainly the sleepy Sunday morning afterwards. Kurt muted the soul-thang to give us soft croaky songs such as `The Daily Growl’ and `Caterpillar’, both reminiscent of 70s RANDY NEWMAN. The tracks, all recorded bare-bones like delicate little ornaments, also displayed the frontman’s impending talent which made one wonder had he been writing songs thirty years ago, he would’ve been a living legend by now. Marky Nevers’ production and spacey guitar was impeccable, with the concluding title track even sliding into a reggae riff.
If CAVE and WAITS could do it, why not the `Chop?, a country-politan nation asked itself as Wagner and crew released two puckishly-titled albums on the same day (February 17, 2004, to be exact): AW CMON and NO, YOU CMON {*8 combined}. Both were spruced up with the Nashville String Machine, their cellos and violas tracing the vagaries of Wagner’s five-and-dime operas. Even without the man’s sage ramblings (or the steady bass of Trovillion), their cinematic warmth rendered the likes of `Being Tyler’ and `The Lone Official’ (both from “Aw…”) as great lost 70s soundtrack music, or even some recently unearthed JIMMY WEBB/GLEN CAMPBELL mutations with the vocals erased. The yan to Aw’s yin, “No…” wasn’t as dreamy but was still a worthy companion piece due to the strange but beautiful `Sunrise’, `Nothing Adventurous Please’ and `Under A Dream Of A Lie’.
Somewhat amiss to home-soil country fans who’d prefer their music simple and unfettered by irony and innuendo, LAMBCHOP had been breaking the charts in old Blighty, and 2006’s DAMAGED {*7} was no exception to the rule. Dealing with faith and disillusion, Wagner’s 15-piece orchestra incorporated a string section arranged by Pete Stopchinski, while other alumni such as pianist Tony Crow (who’d joined in 2002), bassist Matt Swanson, guitarist Alex McManus and drummer Sam Baker, had now settled in among Wagner, Niehaus, Tyler, Marx and Varagona. Simplicity and precision were key factors after their recent bout of “CoLAB” noodling with electro-combo Hands Off Cuba (`Prepared (2)’ carried over), so on the nifty narratives like `Paperback Bible’, `The Rise And Fall Of The Letter P’ and anchor piece `The Decline Of Country And Western Civilization’ (also the title of a singles compilation), a horizontal LAMBCHOP were content to lizard lounge in their front porch back seats.
With part-time sticksman Scott Martin preferred over Baker, and electronics/keyboardist Ryan Norris filling the vacancy left by Varagona, album ten OH (OHIO) (2008) {*7} was another record that should’ve achieved so much more in their heartland. The mumbling and meandering Wagner could be accused of lacking the necessary vocal acumen to fit in among the C&W hierarchy, but with a cynical croon centred on `National Talk Like A Pirate Day’, `Sharing A Gibson With Martin Luther King, Jr.’ and `Popeye’ (not forgetting a cover of DON WILLIAMS’ `I Believe In You’), he was a prince among magpies.
Whether the timing was right for a concert set, well… the LIVE AT XX MERGE (2009) {*7}, at least pointed non-believers to the 11-piece band’s best bits. Embracing several prime cuts including `Up With People’ and the no-holds-barred `Your Fucking Sunny Day’, their label’s 20th anniversary bash (at the Cat’s Cradle on July 24) was made all the more tasty with a meaty encore interpolation of `Give It’ and TALKING HEADS’ `Once In A Lifetime’.
Still unrecognisable among the Music City mainstays, KURT WAGNER was known to side-step from his alt-country comfort zone with the odd collaboration; a 1999 EP (`Chester’) alongside JOSH ROUSE was his most accessible by far. As a new decade opened up possibilities for LAMBCHOP, the singer chose instead to hook up with the ethereal sadcore of Nashville outsider CORTNEY TIDWELL. Ignoring any flights of fancy to produce a straight-laced country-pop album, “Kort” – as they were billed – proved that, had they not the inclination to take country music steps further – they’d have pulled in the punters with commercial covers record, INVARIABLE HEARTACHE (2011) {*7}. For the uninitiated (even in C&W circles), their precision picks were as wayward as their idiosyncratic primary bands. Cortney’s mother Connie Eaton had been a signed singer at the turn of the 70s before committing suicide aged 49, so the heartache side of her dreamy vocals were apparent on the LORETTA LYNN & CONWAY TWITTY-like pieces like `Wild Mountain Berries’, `Incredibly Lonely’ and the tear-drenching and poignant `Who’s Gonna Love Me Now’.
Cortney would stick around a little longer to provide the odd backing vocal on LAMBCHOP’s first studio set in four years, MR. M (2012) {*8}; the gloriously gruff and grief-strewn turns, `If Not I’ll Just Die’, `Mr. Met’, `Nice Without Mercy’ and `The Good Life (Is Wasted)’ almost channelled through the sad death (in 2009) of Kurt and Co’s kindred spirit VIC CHESNUTT. As “Nashville’s most fucked-up country band”, the set once again registered the trimmed act in the UK Top 50. A year on, another old buddy, Marc Trovillion, died in October 2013.
On the back of a moonlighting ambient/electro album project (THE DIET (2015) {*6} by HeCTA), featuring only Wagner, Ryan Norris and Scott Martin, there was a sense that a 6-piece LAMBCHOP could command a more resilient audience. 2016’s FLOTUS {*8} – meaning “For Love Often Turns Us Still” (and not as suggested the topical but unsubstantiated “First Lady Of The United States”) – this album took more than a few chances. Bookended by a couple of elongated tracks, `In Care Of 8675309’ (at nearly 12 minutes) and `The Hustle’ (at a whopping 18), the ‘Chop did not concern themselves with cutting-room floor editing. And why should they, when both were perfect pieces of languid country-soul or skewed C&W-death disco. More popular overseas than in their country’s mid-west approach to anything abstract, Wagner and LAMBCHOP could sound as much AARON NEVILLE (on the vox-box title track, `JFK’ et al), or noodlingly groovy on the likes of `Old Masters’ and `Directions To The Can’.
Forever on the fringes (Wagner almost too tripped-out for the staunch Nashville purists; or too slushy and sentimental for electro-indie trendies), THIS (IS WHAT I WANTED TO TELL YOU) (2019) {*6} had its critics at odds concerning its ghostly, glissed-out grooves. Commander Kurt’s co-collaborator, percussionist Matthew McCaughan, co-composed five of the eight cuts here, but the self-indulgence of over-bearing auto-tuned vox was its downfall. No matter the mood, no matter the mantra, only the most loyal shepherds could give credence to the late night noodles of “best bits”, `The New Isn’t So You Anymore’, `Crosswords, Or What This Says About You’ and the poignantly-titled `The Air Is Heavy And I Should Be Listening To You’. One could almost shout: “Aw C’mon” Kurt!
© MC Strong GRD/1999-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Nov2016-Jun2019

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