by Chris Familton
Kurt Wagner is a unique musician in that he has managed to build a career out of musical understatement. His work carries with it a slight of hand, bursting with subtleties, be it of the lyrical or instrumental kind. He is also quite the unassuming frontman with his white shirt, jeans and ever present trucker cap and he isn’t someone who appears on lists of best singers or most dynamic frontman yet he possesses a unique and somewhat mysterious demeanor with razor sharp wit and a genius ability to bend mundane scenes into poetic turns of phrase.
Lambchop truly found their feet on 2000’s Nixon, a record that combined soul and country with a jazz undercurrent with mesmerising results. Since then they’ve had numerous highlights but no single LP that has captured the essence of the band’s blueprint quite as effectively as they now have on Mr. M.
From the opening swell of strings on If Not I’ll Die to the Nick Drake-esque Never My Love that closes this chapter of Lambchop we are taken on a journey of beauty and grace, tenderness and heartfelt musicality that makes this possibly their best collection of songs to date. There are still those soulful touches that made Nixon such a landmark, particularly in the pulsing wander of the bass guitar on Gar and it’s classic accents and pauses. It is an instrumental yet you almost don’t notice that Wagner’s voice is absent, such is the way in which the band and it’s frontman have created a singular sound on Mr. M. There are some voices on that song, the wonderful wordless harmonies of Cortney Tidwell who also partners Wagner in their other project KORT and who regularly adds a wonderful ethereal female voice to this album.
Mr. M is dedicated to fellow songwriter and friend of Wagner’s Vic Chesnutt who took his own life on Christmas Day 2009. To celebrate his friend and help accept his passing Wagner has scattered many personal memories and tributes through the album but in a way that allows the songs to exist with either multiple or in many cases intangible meaning. The key is to surrender yourself to Wagner’s poetic way when he marries memories with nature on the heartbreaking Nice Without Mercy. He sings of mountains, rivers and sunsets and delivers the devastatingly gorgeous chorus “And the sky opened up like candy and the wind don’t know my name” as part of his rumination on loss and dealing with its aftermath.
The general mood of Mr. M is subdued shuffling americana but it isn’t all doom and gloom. The band kick up some slow moving dust on Gone Tomorrow, transitioning seamlessly to a string quartet and back again. The subtlety of the band’s playing is both the perfect counterbalance and loving embrace of Wagner’s baritone voice. They show restraint often and dexterity at key moments, like the quick-fire drumming and choogling organ in the latter half of Gone Tomorrow and the textural noises that background Buttons like ghostly sounds from the other side.
Mr. M is one of those albums that buries itself deep inside you, triggering an emotional response and sustaining it across all eleven songs. The beauty lies in the measured subtlety of the arrangements, instrument selection and Mark Nevers warm production. Wagner is the orator, the voice in your ear that grounds the songs and paints vivid images upon the band’s canvas. Pending future strokes of genius and with respect to albums like Nixon, Lambchop have created what will probably become their definitive LP.
this review was first published on FasterLouder