For the better part of this century the country music industry — also known by its hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, has converted the rough-around-the-edges music of the rural South into something saleable to Southerners and the rest of the country alike. Its not surprising then that a city so busy being mainstream has never been much of a hot-bed for indie music. But for almost a decade now Nashville has laid claim to at least one nationally recognized indie band, and I’m not talking about Nashville Pussy. Music City’s own Lambchop have carved out a nice career for themselves touring occasionally with indie rock notables like Yo La Tango and making records on Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s excellent Merge label. Their location has been a curiosity for journalists but its also become a major influence on their music.
Nashville is synonymous with country, and the music’s themes and textures are clearly a big part of Lambchop’s new album, Nixon. But Lambchop is not a traditional country band or even the indie version of one. Unlike the hundreds of alt country acts working in the currently prevalent neo-traditional style, Lambchop are not interested in returning country to its supposed glory days. They are more in keeping, philosophically, with bands in the so called No Depression movement (Wilco, Son Volt, Jayhawks — to name a few) in that their aim is to create a new sound based on country music but not limited by it.
Musically though, Lambchop has little in common with most No Depression bands. While No Depression (the genre is named after a record by seminal roots rockers Uncle Tupelo) focuses on Country’s cowboy tales and twangy Appalachian roots, Lambchop is more interested in its smooth, soulful side that owes more than most people admit to the music’s strong gospel (and therefore African American) roots. It’s an oversight that Lambchop addresses musically with their un-self-conscious mixture of soul and country — a sound that works beautifully perhaps because its been so long in coming.
As of 1994 Lambchop was, in many ways, just another indie band. The group’s first full length, I Hope You’re Sitting Down, was an impressive debut with several memorable tracks like Betweemus — a sunny song with a great sing-along chorus, and I Will Drive Slowly — a slow core masterpiece, but it wasn’t the song writing of front man Kurt Wagner, that made critics and listeners take notice. Unlike most indie singers Wagner had a promising band behind him. The huge ensemble (a comparatively small ten members in 1994, now up to thirteen) worked out their arrangements through long jam sessions, and it showed in the album’s clever instrumental flourishes and its relaxed tempos. It was a new and appealing approach for a rock band — a country orchestra; and it improved on Wagner’s song writing and created an album that was much more enjoyable and memorable than it had a right to be.
Then things got different: Starting with 1996’s How I Quit Smoking, Lambchop turned from a whimsical collective backing Kurt Wagner into a confident band with a distinct soul-influenced style. To his great credit, Wagner rose to the challenge of creating material for this evolving project and gave it the space and the guidance to find its voice. With Nixon, Lambchop seems to have finally arrived at the place its been headed all along. The growing soul influence is now so ingrained it pops up everywhere. At times it’s as obvious as Kurt Wagner’s charmingly imperfect falsetto on, “What Else Could It Be?”, but it’s also there on songs like “Grumpus,” which is propelled by a soul bass-line and a choppy minimalist guitar part that could be straight from an Otis Redding record.
The thin string lines that carried the melody in early Lambchop are gone and in their place are full Nashville arrangements which when placed next to the soul influences create a sound that appears to be floating somewhere on a fictional river between Nashville and Memphis. And Kurt Wagner’s low voice ties it all together — exuding an easy confidence that makes the music sound timeless.
For the most part the best songs on Nixon are the one’s with the strongest soul influence. Both You Masculine You and What Else Could It Be? have great hooks and lyrics that would do any ’60s soul man proud. The first track on the record, The Old Gold Shoe, is something of a throwback to the old days of Lambchop and its both a great song and a nice introduction to where this unusual band started. The record ends on a strange note with two atypically un-melodic songs, “The Petrified Florist” and “The Butcher Boy.” “Petrified Florist” is an effective curve ball but “Butcher Boy” just made me want to hit the back button on the CD player and hear “What Else Could It Be?” again. But that’s a small quibble. Nixon is an excellent record and proof that Lambchop is no longer just a talented or interesting band but a good one.