[21 February 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Kurt Wagner, leader of country-soul act Lambchop, and singer-songwriter Cortney Tidwell are all about Nashville. It’s in their blood, it seems. You can hear its influence in their music and, with Invariable Heartache, a particular corner of its musical history acts as muse for the two talented performers. Tidwell’s grandfather ran Chart Records, a small country label in the city, and all the songs on this record—excluding one—come from the label’s catalog. This is a record for folks who spend hours hunched over stacks of records at Grimey’s or their local record store of choice pulling out those lost not-quite-classics. It’s about nostalgia, yes, but it’s also about letting us hear some pretty solid country songs.
The two singers seem to work because, well, their voices don’t really sound like they should fit. It’s hard not to think of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra when you hear Wagner’s craggy croon, a sound impossible to align with, somehow fall in stride with Tidwell’s rangy, resonant voice. She is a capital-S Singer, rising and falling through notes flawlessly, but for all her voice’s precision, she is always feeling out the right notes, rather than hitting them by the numbers.
The two trade sob stories, and harmonize beautifully on “Impossibly Lonely”, the album’s quiet but arresting opener. It’s a mood-setter for sure, prepping us for an album of spare, hushed country tunes. Lambchop members play on the record, but they leave behind that band’s ornate sound in favor of something more direct and laid bare. Even when they whip things up on the humble romp of “Wild Mountain Berries”—an album highlight—it’s all about the ringing guitar and their voices, the other pieces are just there to hold those up. “Let’s Think About Where We’re Going” is another upbeat, shuffling number and, with the moody stomp of “Penetration” mix up the tempo here and give us a break from the sad but beautiful run of ballads that make up the bulk of the record.
The two are at their best when together, but there are some nice solo moments for each. Though we get glimpses of the power of her voice, Tidwell tends towards hushed subtlety, which works well on “I Can’t Sleep with You”, a song that hinges on a trademark country phrase-twist when she ends the chorus with “I can’t sleep with you on my mind”. Later, she sings the only non-Chart track here, the aching “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?” It’s a powerfully melancholy song all on its own, but considering it was originally sung by her mother, who passed away at age 49, the convergence of musical and personal history is both touching and sad. Wagner gets his own stunning moment on “April’s Fool”, where his voices rises and falls over a rainy-day piano, showing the surprising range of his always gravelly voice.
The set occasionally gets too quiet, like when subtle hush turns to under-singing on “Only a Memory Away”, and there’s the occasional small misstep—the spoken-word segments of “Penetration” distract from a great song—but overall this is a charming, heartfelt set of songs. Surely, Invariable Heartache will mean a lot to Nashville’s country-music lifers, but even if you don’t know Chart Records, or have never even been to Nashville, this album can still hit home for you. As long as you like good songs with tight melodies, quietly clever lyrics, and resonant emotion, you too can be taken with the album’s charms. Wagner and Tidwell take command of these songs and manage to do two difficult things simultaneously: they pay tribute to a small but vital part of their musical lineage, and they might just push those who don’t know about Chart Records to start digging through the stacks in search of a new set of hidden gems.