Lambchop takes a hard left turn on their new album FLOTUS , which makes heavy use of electronic instrumentation and treated vocals.
The long-running and beloved Nashville band Lambchop have been making uniquely postmodern guitar-based music for over two decades now. Like fellow 1990s tentpoles Pavement or Guided by Voices, Lambchop are experimental traditionalists. While the former took influence from AM pop and the experimental rock canon and the latter took British Invasion pop and filtered it through cheap four-track recordings, Lambchop’s initial sound came from classic country songwriting, with ballads that could easily fit in old saloons or traditional concert halls. Since then, the band has moved through an array of styles from the rock canon, handling all beautifully and professionally.
And yet, there’s something knowing and irreverent about the band. Lambchop has named albums after disgraced Republican presidents and Michael Jackson's biggest-selling album. They call their catchiest tune "Your Fucking Sunny Day". But this tongue-in-cheek postmodern humor is tempered by beautiful observations from dulce-voice singer Kurt Wagner like, "The wine tasted like sunshine in a basement." The band is sentimental but wise. They don't overreach sonically or lyrically like less artistically successful groups that operate in the same territory, such as the Hold Steady. Their previous album, Mr. M was a measured affair, written mostly as Wagner’s reaction to the death of friend and collaborator Vic Chesnutt. Full of syrupy strings and a measured sense of morality, Mr. M is one of Lambchop’s most beautiful efforts. Throughout the album, there are wonderful flourishes that conjure the romance and promise of Hollywood's Golden Age. But their new record, FLOTUS, is a hard left-turn back into experimental territory.
FLOTUS (an acronym for “For love often turns us still", yet another representative of Wagner's poetic ability) is a weightless but propulsive collection of ambient-leaning rock music, featuring heavy use of treated vocals from Wagner. It’s a strange move as Wagner’s vocals are one of Lambchop’s most ingratiating elements, ably giving lilt to lyrics that might read as wry on paper to something much richer. Throughout FLOTUS , the lyrics are increasingly hard to parse, with Wagner’s voice acting as another layer to the rich sound the band is created. The first song, “In Care of 8675309” mixes a classically-styled ballad in the vein of Bob Dylan’s list songs like “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” with Wagner’s vocodered voice, creating a new juxtaposition that’s both familiar and totally alien. This spirit continues throughout the rest of the album’s shifting soundscapes, which feature dub bass, electronic percussion, and the piano serving as the album’s true guiding light.
FLOTUS is a beautiful and enveloping record, but it’s tough to grasp onto, fully enacting Brian Eno’s definition of ambient, which is music that’s “as ignorable as it's interesting". Like previous efforts, Lambchop handles this new approach with workmanlike precision. The album’s final track, “The Hustle”, is a perfect bookend, as it takes the ambient elements that the album has explored, but pairs them with more forceful playing, an epic structure, and clean vocals from Wagner. It’s the most immediate song on the entire album and a classic that stands up with anything that they’ve done previously.
And yet, there is something indistinct and unknowable about FLOTUS. As deftly as it is handled, the album lacks a distinct center. It feels like a stepping stone from an ever-evolving act for their next release. Lambchop operates with supreme confidence and a willingness to through the book on how to do things out the window. But one senses that this is a floating state for the band. Something temporary and transitory. And we can only hope that it will lead to something even richer in the future.