“Life will be the death of us all” laments Lambchop‘s Kurt Wagner on Showtunes‘ opening song – the tender-hearted ballad, A Chef’s Kiss. It’s the kind of line we’d expect from Jeff Tweedy but as the years roll on, Wagner has equally been forthcoming in pulling words out of the fire.
Lambchop shouldn’t need an introduction, however it’s surprising just how many people in the wider sphere of ‘indie’ music aren’t fully across the gorgeous aural meanderings of Wagner‘s project.
Perhaps it’s not the time for such introductions. After all, an artist as compelling as the Nashville-based song-smith should be afforded a wider berth for these discussions (and no doubt will be in time).
Showtunes, Lambchop’s fourteenth album, sees Wagner getting things back on track after the slight misstep with 2019’s This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You). While a misstep may sound dramatic, to put things into context, Lambchop have formed such a strong immunity against mediocrity that anything slightly under the project’s lofty standards will most certainly be met with a hue and cry-type stewards’ inquiry.
That’s how important Lambchop are in the realm of modern day music. Perhaps the landmark album, 2016’s FLOTUS, lifted Lambchop into this stratosphere, whereby they are one of the most important acts in the business. We don’t say that lightly, but when you strip it all back, they probably are.
With Showtunes, Wagner gives us a taste of the similar aesthetics employed during the game-changing FLOTUS, but with the help of James McNew (Yo La Tengo), Ryan Olsen (Gayngs, Polica) and CJ Camerieri, he adds further spices to that already delicious sonic broth (see album centrepiece, Faku).
One thing that Showtunes captures that high watermarks in the aforementioned FLOTUS and Nixon perhaps don’t is a new emotional depth. Here, Wagner finds subtle ways to unlock the soul and it’s as off-kilter as Lambchop has ever been.
“It’s so hot the air has second thoughts.” sings Wagner on the above-noted A Chef’s Kiss. His thick, morose voice, soaking into the American soil. It’s the kind of line you’d associate with the likes of John Irving.
Packaged in three minutes and 23 seconds, Drop C is like a Contiki tour of sound, taking us on a crash course through the history of Lambchop. Fluttering brass sections and Wagner‘s soft melodies pouring like water from a tap.
Papa was a Rolling Stone Journalist mixes drama with finesse. Imagine Bohren & der Club of Gore collaborating with Richard Clayderman? Yes, it’s unimaginable but, like always, Wagner makes us believe that there is no such word as ‘can’t’.
A similar expect-the-unexpected moment arrives later with Impossible Meatballs, but in a slightly altered manner, with Wagner offsetting absurdity with beauty. How can something that sounds so gorgeous contain a title like that? Again, that’s what Lambchop does.
“Let’s just say that writer was an asshole/Let’s just say that ass wasn’t me” croons Wagner on The Last Benedict. An elegant faux-operatic waltz that projects flashes of the rustic past. Imagine Nucky Thompson dropping the gramophone needle with a glass of whisky in hand. The song in question would, indeed, be The Last Benedict.
Showtunes is filled with those trademark abstract moments as soft, serenading backdrops of sound combine with Wagner‘s vague missives (Like somebody’s mother, you sang the blues – Drop C ).
Wagner has always had the knack of extracting random notebook dispatches and shoehorning them into his songs and on Showtunes that very much continues.
This is what makes Lambchop such a worthwhile proposition. These techniques create a wild longevity, as the songs morph into new shapes and suggest new meaning. That’s why Lambchop are one of the most important acts around. Showtunes doesn’t suggest otherwise.
Showtunes is out now via City Slang. Purchase from Bandcamp.