Listening to Lambchop records has always sounded like being let in on a secret. Steeped in country and western and soul music, their sound is both intricate and understated. And Kurt Wagner’s whisper has too many holes in it to even be called gravelly. But the holes in his voice reveal the emotional heft of their songs, and always find a bottom in the band’s swaying sound. Over ten albums — not including EPs and singles collections — Lambchop has achieved a consistency that most bands can’t maintain over a discography a third as long.
And sometimes — on Nixon and How I Quit Smoking in particular — Lambchop are brilliant, near untouchable. And now, with OH (ohio), they’ve added another album to the Lambchop Classics catalog. Like so many of their albums, it has their signature sound, and it isn’t until you are deep into the record that you see how they’ve broken off and done something subtly new here.
Wagner has talked in the past about how certain Lambchop records have highlighted certain members of the band. On, OH (ohio), drummer Scott Martin nearly steals the show. He can keep with the jazzy shuffle of the band on tracks like “Ohio” and the beautiful ballad “A Hold of You”. But he injects a new energy into this new album. Songs like “National Talk Like a Pirate Day” and “Sharing a Gibson with Martin Luther King Jr.” are country highway rompers with Martin on the skins. He picks up the pace on these tracks, but keeps on shuffling brushes on the snare and sneaking in fills to keep the songs from ever getting simple on their long drives. And when muscle is called for, like on the funked-out ending to “Popeye”, Martin comes to play, popping and thudding along with the heavy bass line.
But no matter the highlight from the band, this is still — whether he’d admit it or not — Wagner’s show. And he is at his understated best on this record. His verses are just as rambling as they’ve ever been, but they rely a little more on melody than on his hushed cadence. The rise and fall of each line on “National Talk like a Pirate Day” hint at the intimacy of the track, the impending let downs we’re all trying to fend off. The lilting melody in his voice on “Of Raymond” sneaks up on you, not fully revealing himself until he gets to the end of the first verse.
And his rambling songs are again punctuated by brilliant and heartbreaking lines. “The blackbird sang the sun to bed,” he repeats on the chorus of “Slipped, Dissolved, and Loosed.” And throughout the album, he picks everyday details and renders them personal. Table hockey games, bundles of old newspapers, old pajamas, turning leaves. These simple elements populate OH (ohio) and make Wagner’s intimate songs more heartbreaking and personal.
But it is not all sad times on the new record. In fact, Wagner seems to be moving out towards contentment and away from isolation as the album goes on. “Green doesn’t matter when you’re blue,” he sings on the opening track, dismissing recycling in his sadness. But by the last track, “I Believe in You”, he is claiming ideals rather than casting them away. And the album in between those two tracks has Lambchop meandering back and forth, beautifully and honestly, between sadness and joy, between denial and acceptance, between cynicism and hope.
OH (ohio) is flat-out one of the best records Lambchop has made, and certainly their best since 2000’s classic Nixon. It might be the best country record of 2008. Or maybe it’s the best soul record of 2008. Or the best folk record. Who knows? Lambchop has never been cared for genres. But regardless of the genre, OH (ohio) is one of the best sounds to be heard this year.