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Is a Woman

(Merge; US: 19 Feb 2002)

Lambchop’s firmly based in Nashville, but any twang they may have once possessed disappeared long ago. An increasingly large collective of under-the-radar Music City talent, Lambchop is the brainchild of Kurt Wagner, who’s used the band to craft everything from hayseed pop to vintage soul. It’s an increasingly eclectic mix that’s gained Wagner & company a bushel full of street cred even if that hasn’t translated into blockbuster sales. They’re also one of those bands that’s impossible to describe. In the band’s own words, Lambchop consists of “two guitars, one bass, two drummers, pedal steel guitar, open-end wrenches, lacquer-thinner can, organ, xylophone, euphonium, trombone, baritone sax, trumpet, clarinet, bongoes, resonating metal square, and a vanilla extract bottle”.

With Is a Woman, add piano to the list, and Lambchop uses it to concoct a strange delight of a record. Consistent in mood throughout its 11 songs, Is a Woman weaves a languid vibe; “lounge” influences are obvious in the music’s smoothness, but that term fails to convey the music’s sheer class and meditative nature. The disc opens with a classic piano intro—one that wouldn’t be out of place on a placid Liberace number—before settling into a muted interplay of piano and soulful guitar. This mood is sustained throughout the entire record, with only a few variations (the gently loping “Flick”, the spooky vibe of “Caterpillar”, the hushed but sprightly groove of “D. Scott Parsley”); it successfully accomplishes one of Wagner’s stated goals: to create a record that ends on the same tone that it begins, but which takes you on a subtle journey in-between.

Wagner claims that he wrote most of Is a Woman after suddenly quitting his job and using the time to sit in his yard every morning. That genesis comes through in more ways than one. Not only does the album convey a sense of things slowly dawning, much as the world comes to life as the day progresses, but also in Wagner’s subject matter. This time around, he’s more existential, more considered. His dry wit is still in evidence, and his lyrics have always been slightly inscrutable, but Is a Woman wholeheartedly concerns itself with the intangible. For every line about something mundane like being on the tour bus, there’s a line like “the link between profound and pain / Covers you like Sherwin Williams”.

“My Blue Wave” deals with the death of a friend, and finds that the only comfort to be found is in the family dog, with its head full of “bones and squirrels”. “Caterpillar” teems with images of two people having different experiences in the same places (“You have stepped in hardened footprints / Down where my shoes were muddied / And I know we must have heard / The same dogs barking”). “Autumn’s Vicar” works fine as a description of the fall season, but there’s also something going on about “angry middle aged distraction”. Divorce, exploration of self, struggles with anxiety, death, interpersonal relationships—Wagner covers the gamut of day-to-day experience without ever losing his ethereal, universal sense of purpose.

It’s likely that many will find Is a Woman to be too sleepy, too mannered. There’s nary an emotive spike to be found, and there are no familiar reference points like choruses for the casual listener to cling to. It’s a difficult album, despite its warm and friendly feel, and it doesn’t stand a chance in seven hells of yielding anything remotely resembling a hit. It merely adds another chapter to the Lambchop saga, in which a host of musicians put up their own money, take time off from their day jobs, and make sacrifices to bring a personal vision to life. In that sense, Is a Woman is refreshing in more ways than one.

Andrew Gilstrap is a freelance writer living in South Carolina, where he's able to endure the few weeks each year that it's actually freezing (swearing a vow that if he ever moves, it'll be even farther south). Aging into a fine curmudgeon whose idea of heaven is 40 tree-covered acres away from the world, he increasingly wishes he were part of a pair of twins, just so he could try being the kinda evil one on for size. Musically, he's always scouring records for that one moment that makes him feel like he's never heard music before, but he long ago realized he needs to keep his copies of John Prine, Crowded House, the Replacements, Kate Bush, and Tom Waits within easy reach.

Tagged as: lambchop
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