Lambchop has a long history of providing listeners with interesting bonus material and rare self-releases. Some come in the form of bonus discs on import editions of albums, some come in the form of tour EPs. Their latest of these offerings, Democracy, is one of the latter, a generous collection available from the band on the road in support of their new album, Mr. M, which also happens to be one of the finest records of 2012 to date. That album is a lush and intricate affair, swaying and swelling with strings in complex arrangements around the papery intimacy of Kurt Wagner’s weathered voice and his shimmering guitar work. Democracy, which offers eight alternate versions of songs from the album, could sound like leftovers, but instead it plays like a companion piece to Mr. M. Lambchop’s records are always hushed in one way or another, and Mr. M is too, despite its size. But Democracy strips away the size and leaves just the quiet beauty of these great songs.
What’s revealed here is the intimacy of loss and its healing that pulses under the lilting textures of Mr. M. The album was dedicated to the late Vic Chesnutt, a good friend of Kurt Wagner’s, and the versions on Democracy often sound like a more private correspondence between the two. Wagner’s voice has an extra level of restraint here – it’s even more whispery than usual – yet you never feel strained to hear. When he opens the pastoral roll of “Gone Tomorrow” with the cryptic introduction, “This was their last night on the continent,” you are locked in, ready to see where he takes his wandering lyrics – sometimes impressionistic, sometimes narrative, always beautifully embedded in the mundane details of the everyday.
Around his singing, these songs display the true foundation of the band’s huge sound: Wagner’s guitar playing. His finger-picked style rolls and circles back on itself, the progressions made of simple enough parts that become complex in the ways they line up over the course of a song. The two versions of “2B2” here show just how many variations he can have on this technique. The first finds him moving back and forth between half-strummed chords and finger-picked notes, creating an affecting space around his playing that mirrors the long-distance missing of a track where Wagner pines over his “soulmate on the coast.” The second version, which closes the EP, is plucked slower but more steadily, the notes ringing together in a subtle but glittering bed under Wagner’s creaking voice. It’s far removed from the shuffle of the original, but there’s a sweet lonesome quality to this version that makes it uniquely excellent.
Despite the stripped-down nature of Democracy, nothing here comes off as mere demo. Even if the focus is on Wagner – in fact, if he released this as a solo effort under his own name, no one would bat an eye – these versions are remarkably complete, as fully realized and detailed as anything on Mr. M. The difference here is that the textures are far sparer. A fading organ gives the first version of “2B2” a convincingly haunted vibe, while “Gone Tomorrow” is scuffed up nicely by a backwards-shuffling drum loop. An electronic loop pulses through the country romp of “The Good Life (Is Wasted)”, trading some of the tune’s dust in for faint pixels, while “Nice Without Mercy” finds Wagner treated with an echo that makes it boom and spread out over the tune, making the isolation of a line like “and the wind still don’t know my name” resonate all the deeper.
The one misstep here comes where the layers get too pronounced, where the subtlety and use of space on the EP gives way to something too intrusive. “Mr. Met” is, at its heart, a great solo performance by Wagner, with carefully struck progressions of chords melting around his brittle voice. Unfortunately, though, the song is undone when a drum loop fades in and out of the track. It’s too high in the mix when it’s there, and its tempo – which sounds lifted from a Casio – doesn’t fit the timing of the song, which throws off what is otherwise a bittersweet dream of a tune. That aside, though, Democracy is an excellent companion to Mr. M, and a look into the solitary vigil that’s behind all the communal beauty of that album. If that album was about honoring a friend, and healing by degrees from the loss of that friend, then Democracy nicely shows us the start of that healing process. It may be quieter than the album it’s a companion to, but it’s no less generous in both its feeling and its glut of great music.
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