One normally wouldn’t associate avant-garde rock artist Kurt Wagner with show tunes. Indeed, Wagner himself has said he doesn’t like most of the genre’s repertoire, with some notable exceptions. However, while experimenting with converting guitar licks into MIDI piano tracks, he discovered he could manipulate his music in new ways that he couldn’t do with just the stringed instrument. The results inspired Wagner to do something different. Hence the latest Lambchop record, although its overall sound has little to do with what one considers show tunes.
There are no big climaxes of sound or hook-laden choruses. The ingenious wordplay and emotive melodrama usually connected to the best of the American musical theatre, say the work of Stephen Sondheim or Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, are missing here. Lambchop’s Showtunes more closely resemble the mumbled verses and asides one would hear off-stage in the wings than projected from the proscenium. While Broadway musicals generally have big hearts, this is more intellectual than sentimental fare.
Wagner is the main songwriter, producer (with Jeremy Ferguson), and mixer. In addition, Wagner provides vocals, MIDI piano, guitar, composition, and editing, but this is not a solo production. The band includes Ryan Olson: horn production and rearrangements, sound manipulation; C.J. Camerieri: horns and arrangements; Andrew Broder: grand piano and turntables; James McNew: upright bass; Twit One: beats; with Jeremy Ferguson: snare drum and Eric Slick: on drum pass. The players don’t jam together as much as layer their contributions, so they are heard separately. They don’t necessarily perform in the same time signature for similar reasons.
Overall, there is a delicacy and quiet to these eight tracks, even when there are horn sections such as on the sweet and lovely instrumentals “Impossible Meatballs” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone Journalist”. The humorous titles of these tunes suggest that the songs are not meant to be taken seriously as much as they function as mood setters. The songs with lyrics share the same tongue-in-cheek sensibility with lines like, “Life will be the death of us all” and “If it’s the last thing we do together, let’s fall in love”, delivered in a deadpan voice. Wagner sings sincerely even when he’s expressing insincerity as if there is no difference between fact and fiction, and only the emotion is real.
Sometimes, there are operatic arias sung behind the main vocals, as on “The Last Benedict”, that give the song a deeper expressive kick than the bare voice alone. There seems a deliberate attempt to be affecting more than disturbing. The presumption is that Wagner thinks that show music tunes are more poignant than traditional songs. This material may be low-key in its presentation, but Wagner demonstrates sensitivity to details. He is the “Unknown Man”, as the title to one song says, whose individuality cannot be found just by looking at his image.
If the stereotype about show tunes is that they are boldly performed and exciting, Wagner stands the tropes on their head. This music does not call attention to itself. This would work better as background music than witnessed on stage as not much exciting happens. That’s on purpose. This is music to chill with and ponder quietly.