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Lambchop – Mr M

Lambchop, Mr M

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

THE 11th studio album from Lambchop combines elements of loss and recovery, sadness and hope, as befits a collection of songs that wear their heart on their sleeve.

By Kurt Wagner’s own admission, the songs on Mr M began when the singer-songwriter-guitarist turned away from music and picked up his brushes to paint his way out of a funk that followed the premature death of his friend, Vic Chesnutt, who the band backed on 1998’s The Salesman and Bernadette.

And it was only when Mark Nevers (the former full-time band member turned producer) approached him with the idea of making another record that embraced a different sound that he considered returning to the studio.

“His idea was a kind of ‘psycha-Sinatra’ sound, one that involved the arranging of strings and other sounds in a more open and yet complex way,” explained Wagner. “It was a studio creation, not a type of recording based on band performance, and this was a radical approach for us. I felt Lambchop had one more good record in us, and this time I was going to do things as directly and true to my desires as possible.”

The ensuing record is both signature and ambitious. With a voice like Wagner’s, there’s never going to be a radical departure, while the depth of his emotions is there for all to hear as usual.

But on several occasions, the instrumentals are – as Wagner says – more complex. On album highlight, Gone Tomorrow, for instance, you get to savour lush string arrangements as well as an electronic bed and some beautiful piano melodies.

And such moments come in stark contrast to the likes of the more despairing If Not I’ll Just Die, which reflects Wagner’s doubts and path towards making the record, or Mr Met, which unfolds from some genuinely melancholy strings and a sluggish beat to offer lyrics that eventually give rise to quiet optimism.

Yet even in the darkest moments, the instrumental arrangements are often quite captivating… and sometimes unfold like mini-opuses (Mr Met being a beautiful case in point throughout its seven-plus minutes).

Lyrically, Wagner retains his trademark intelligence throughout, whether being generally observant on the aforementioned Mr Met (“loss made us idiots, fear makes us critical, knowledge is difficult”) or reflecting on his own personal sense of loss on Nice Without Mercy, which speaks of a warmth returning when he didn’t think it was possible to feel that way again.

Indeed, it’s no small tribute to Wagner’s return that where I’ve found his style to be at odds with my own personal preferences quite a lot of the time – by virtue of his gravel-like voice and slow, meticulous approach to song-writing – on Mr M he held me captivated on many occasions.

Buttons, for instance, contains some wonderful musical arrangements, which really recall the Sinatra vibe that Wagner has spoken of, The Good Life (is Wasted) taps into his nice line in humour (“I’m not the kind of guy who lives comfortably, give it some time and you’ll see… the good life is wasted on me”) while delivering a more robust sound, while Betty’s Overture offers a fantastic instrumental moment in which Wagner gracefully allows his fellow band members to take a deserved centre stage.

Lambchop arguably remain an acquired taste, and perhaps you could argue more so given the fragile melancholy surrounding this particular record. But in overcoming his own grief, Wagner has created an album that may even rate as his most commercially accessible and widely appreciated to date.

There is so much to admire, not least in that complex instrumental approach that coaxed him back in the first place.

Download picks: Gone Tomorrow, Mr Met, Nice Without Mercy, Buttons, The Good Life (is wasted), Betty’s Overture, Never My Love

Track listing:

  1. If Not I’ll Just Die
  2. 2B2
  3. Gone Tomorrow
  4. Mr Met
  5. Gar
  6. Nice Without Mercy
  7. Buttons
  8. The Good Life (is wasted)
  9. Kind Of
  10. Betty’s Overture
  11. Never My Love