[28 January 2014]
For its 25th anniversary, Merge Records is reissuing a number of albums from its catalog that have earned classic status. The first of these is Nixon, the Nashville band Lambchop’s watershed fifth album. Originally released in February 2000, it proved to be the critical breakthrough many thought the band had long deserved. Time has cemented its place as one of the pinnacles of Lambchop’s storied career.
Nixon is the culmination of the “countrypolitan” path that started on 1996’s How I Quit Smoking; its soulful blend of country, gospel, r&b and late ‘60s/early ‘70s chamber pop reached a state of maximal ornamentation and nearly baroque arrangements. Since this point, they’ve steadily removed country signifiers. It’s hard to hear recognizable country tropes on their latest album, Mr. M, even though they’re occasionally still referred to as “Nashville’s most f_cked up country band”. This left Nixon as both the fork in the road and a singular, solitary peak. Instead of following a path possibly paved with gilded country lilies, Lambchop would redefine themselves with Is a Woman, a languid front-porch lounge record that is spartan in comparison.
To realize their opulent vision of Nixon, Lambchop – at the time, a 14-person band – called on the talents of four additional musicians, the Nashville String Machine, and a choir. Despite the size and scope of the assembled group, they never fall into the black hole of excess. Their greatest strength has always been in their balance and restraint. The accompaniment rarely swells beyond a lush, velvety, aural embrace, and when it does come forward to loom over the listener, it always recedes before breaking. That control is ever present, even at their most dissonant and forceful. For example, the horn stabs on punchy closer “The Butcher Boy” come across more as a friendly, if too forceful, pat on the back than any sort of in your face show of power.
Lambchop’s approach on Nixon is not to build tension and meaning through aggression but through contrast. Singer and songwriter Kurt Wagner’s natural delivery is melodic if wonderfully imperfect, his speak-singing a match for his dry and sometimes ironic lyrics. When paired with the luxuriant perfection of the band, the effect heightens the drama missing from the delivery. For example, on album opener “The Old Gold Shoe”, Wagner’s simple melody is spotlighted by the counter-melody, the vignettes of each verse given greater weight by ending each in turn with a simple rising of strings or a three-note mournful cry from pedal steel. As a result, though the lyrics may be slightly abstruse, the song casts them in concrete. When he rises to his relatively weak falsetto, his singing adds a certain grit to all the orchestrated lushness. But it has such charm within its quavering limits that “What Else Could It Be?” fails to be cloying despite the saccharine sweetness of the arrangement.
The contrast between the limits of Wagner as a singer and quiet perfection of the instrumentation is heightened by the bonus disc included in this reissue. Entitled White Sessions 1998: How I Met Cat Power, these solo performances recorded for Radio France feature a handful of the then unrecorded songs that would surface on Nixon. The aforementioned “What Else Could It Be?” is achingly sad without its full arrangement, the broken heart a little too raw. The solo version of “The Distance from Her to There”, on the other hand, is relatively complete. The Nixon arrangement fills the spaces without changing the tenor or impact of the song. Like the demo discs and live recordings the band sells on tour, these radio sessions don’t change what Nixon is, but they do shine a light on the compositional heart of the arrangements, and better tie the album to the work both before and since.
The years have shown that Nixon was neither ahead of its time nor intent on capturing a bygone era. Instead, it seems firmly outside any continuum besides the band’s own. Age has given it additional poignancy and grace, and it fully deserves the recognition Merge Records is giving it as the launch of their anniversary celebrations. The time is right to expose a new generation to one of the truly classic albums of the past several decades.