Back in the summer of 2002, Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner had an idea: as a creative exercise, he’d try to write one complete song every day. It seemed to kickstart Wagner, as he proceeded to amass a huge amount of new material for the Nashville collective’s next album. If that weren’t enough, Lambchop was asked by the San Francisco International Film Festival to compose a new score for F.W. Murnau’s 1927 silent film Sunrise. It was a challenge Wagner gladly accepted, but when all was said and done, with so much new music to choose from, what were they going to with it all? Well, instead of releasing a new album, Lambchop would have to just put out two instead.
When artists release two albums simultaneously, the results are almost always sloppy, self-indulgent affairs, records people either love for their all-out audacity, or despise for their mind-numbing length, which makes Lambchop’s two new albums, Aw Cmon and No You Cmon all the more surprising. The albums are remarkably restrained, both around the 45-minute length, the music is adventurous without becoming pretentious, and best of all, monotony never sets in.
Following the acclaimed 2000 album Nixon, which blended mellow Americana and soulful R&B, 2002’s pretty Is a Woman was a much more subdued effort. Almost too subdued, in fact, as it quietly sleepwalked for over an hour, only to be overshadowed by a b-side, the band’s brilliant interpretation of Sisters of Mercy’s goth classic “This Corrosion”. Very much like how Yo La Tengo has mellowed comfortably in the last four years, Aw Cmon/No You Cmon has Lambchop settling into a nice little groove, combining the lush, orchestral R&B sound of Nixon with Is a Woman‘s hushed, chamber pop feel. The result is a sunnier, far more upbeat collection of songs than their last album, featuring some of their best music yet.
“They say you walk around/ As if a ghost had crossed your path/ Or turned into a reading material as it happens to be chosen/ From the torn or taffeta/ You’re frozen in the contemplation of a win,” sings Wagner on Aw Cmon‘s “Four Pounds in Two Days”, his deep, cigarette-ravaged, baritone voice sounding more and more like Leonard Cohen, adding in typical facetious manner, “OK, maybe that was a little heavy on the word play.” Aw Cmon is the most relaxed of the two discs, the most instantly pleasing, the most Lambchop-like, boasting the strongest lyrics of the two CDs. Lloyd Barry’s string arrangements play a very prominent role on this album, especially on “Steve McQueen”, a lovely little tune that seems to muse about mutual tolerance, mortality, and Hollywood stars at the same time (in other words, quintessential Kurt Wagner). The strange, lounge piano of “Women Help to Create the Kind of Men They Despise” provides the weirdest moment on an album that really plays it safe, as Wagner recites stream-of-consciousness lyrics punctuated by his distinctive phrasing, briefly interrupting the nocturnal mood with the bizarre, seemingly arbitrarily thrown-in line, “rug-that-o-pened-as-a-well-of-co-lor-at-her-feet”. The ballad “I Hate Candy” has Wagner singing playfully, “Where’s my little trouble girl?”, while the lullaby-like “I Haven’t Heard a Word I’ve Said” boasts some hypnotic wah-wah guitar licks.
A trio of songs forms Aw Cmon‘s centerpiece. “Something’s Going On”, Wagner says, is intended as a reply to Marvin Gaye’s classic song “What’s Going On”, and aided by Barry’s strings, it’s a song you find yourself wishing that Gaye was still around to sing. Wagner answers that, well, something’s always happening, be it something extraordinary, or something hopelessly mundane, like a hand that’s asleep: “Wake up in a kinda sweat/ Fingers slightly numb and shaking/ Blood flows back into your hand/ Must be the way you have been sleeping.” The travelogue “Nothing But a Blur From a Bullet Train” has Wagner reciting random lines, as if describing the changing landscape outside a train window, the song concluding with a beautiful coda of strings, as if Wagner’s run out of things to say, and just sits back, absorbing what he sees rushing past. “Each Time I Bring It Up It Seems to Bring You Down” is a typical Lambchop ballad, climaxing in the always reliable, self-deprecating, old-time country lines, “So shoot me from a cannon/ Or squash me like a bug/ Or sweep me like some dirt/ That lies under a rug,” before delivering the payoff line that happens to be the title.
The real fun is to be had on No You Cmon, as Lambchop gets much more adventurous and bold in their musical arrangements. The sultry “Low Ambition” has a strong jazz influence in Tony Crow’s piano and Matt Swanson’s bass playing, and Wagner starts to experiment with his voice more, singing in a very low register. The growing similarity to the music of Leonard Cohen is most noticeable here, with the combination of Wagner’s deep voice and Deanna Varagona’s sweet background vocals greatly resembling what Cohen did on his later albums. The Barry White tribute “There’s Still Time” has Wagner and company continuing to brilliantly pull of faithful renditions of ‘70s R&B. The ironically titled “Nothing Adventurous Please” has the band sounding louder than they ever have, but even when they try to rock out, it still feels delightfully odd. The simple country strains of “The Problem” are offset by Wagner’s often hilarious observations (“When the chimp on the tree/ Shakes his fist at me/ You know I love it/ Cause it means that much to me”), while the wonderfully goofy “Shang a Dang Dang” combines a fun garage rock arrangement with do wop-inspired vocal nonsense by Wagner, bass vocalist George Woods, and a tenor choir. Then you’ve got the whimsical “About My Lighter”, the Philly soul of “Under the Dream of a Lie”, the sublime “Listen”, and the psychotic “The Gusher”, which haphazardly tosses in bossa nova, the theme from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” in a bizarre mash-up that would make Super Furry Animals smile.
Peppered throughout Aw Cmon and No You Cmon are six instrumental tracks which provide some of the albums’ best moments. On both albums, the instrumentals lighten the mood, offering a brief respite from Wagner’s meandering, which, as proven on Is a Woman, can get a bit tedious when it goes on too long. However, taken on their own, the tracks really show how versatile a band Lambchop is. From Aw Cmon, “Being Tyler” serves as a fitting overture for this 90-minute experience, as Lloyd Barry’s strings swoop over the band’s lightly funky groove. The country-tinged “The Lone Official” and “Timothy B. Schmidt” both sound relaxed and optimistic, the melody carried by gorgeous, innocuous guitar solos and Crow’s wonderful piano work. Meanwhile, on No You Cmon, “Sunrise” effortlessly evokes the title, with its piano and strings-driven, West Coast pop feel (not to mention Paul Niehaus’s dreamy pedal steel playing). Meanwhile, the shuffling “Jan 24” has more of a jam-oriented (I won’t say Phish) sound, and “The Producer”, with its winsome melody, sounds like the perfect closing credit music for a film.
It took some guts, but Kurt Wagner’s confidence in his wealth of material has yielded two of Lambchop’s strongest albums to date, and the band has regained the form they showed in the late ‘90s and 2000. Aw Cmon/No You Cmon might not be an official “double album” (even though it’s being sold as one in the UK), but you can’t really have one without needing the other also, they complement each other so well. One new Lambchop album is always an event, but two albums, especially when they’re this good, make it doubly sweet.
// Notes from the Road
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