Lambchop: The Decline of Country & Western Civilization Part II: The Woodwind Years
Aside from the occasional clunker, this album of b-sides, rarities, alternate takes, and unreleased tracks shows that Lambchop should be remembered primarily as a fine alt.country community, not some sock the late Shari Lewis wore on her hand.
Don't let the wordy, odd "emo"-like album title fool you my good people. The country-tinged collective known to the world as Lambchop will not be mistaken for Panic! At The Disco or Fall Out Boy anytime soon. What they have been known for since truly breaking into larger circles with Nixon is making some great music that can't be categorized without using three or four hyphens or "meets" in the description. The Decline of Country & Western Civilization Part II: The Woodwind Years takes a look back at their career by collecting singles, b-sides, alternative takes, and previously unreleased material. As is sometimes the case with these kinds of albums, it can be surprising and extremely cohesive, like Suede's Sci-Fi Lullabies was, or one it can make you want to steal Kurt Wagner's frayed trucker's baseball cap and put it over your face for a siesta. True to form, this album falls somewhere in the middle.
With a chronological track listing, Lambchop kicks things off with the subtle, relaxing alt.country feel of "My Cliché". The tune, from a single released in 1994, has Wagner's fragile, wavering voice gliding deftly over some sweet pedal steel guitar accents that draw you in quickly and quietly. "Quick there goes my mind," Wagner sings in a way that melds the vocal styles of Lou Reed and Cat Stevens. It's the sort of song that would be the perfect complement to the Cowboy Junkies' cover of "Sweet Jane" or their own precious and haunting "Misguided Angel". The group then decides to change the tempo for "Loretta Lung". It's a bit busy for some ears, with keyboards, guitars, drums, horns, and Wagner all fighting for space within the tune.
But "Loretta Lung" sounds like a masterpiece compared to the disconnected and discombobulated "Two Kittens Don't Make a Puppy". If you could envision the group going to the barn, taking out their fluorescent glow sticks, turning this song on, and commencing a rave, then it might make sense. While it is somewhat painful, it is fortunately quick. Lambchop redeem themselves with the soothing, somber tones on "It's Impossible". Here, Wagner is wearing his heart on his plaid sleeve as the instruments seem to work in unison. Meanwhile, "Ovary Eyes", a song found on a 1995 compilation, is another well-paced track that shows the group at its best.
The album can be summed up with "The Scary Caroler": moments of brilliance get washed away in winding arrangements, leaving one feeling slightly unfulfilled. When the group decides to slow things down, everything works quite well. A good example of this is the spooky "Your Life as a Sequel" that would fall somewhere between The Handsome Family and Blue Rodeo. Yet, for this nugget, you are also given a bland, jazzy-roots feel during "Alumni Lawn". It's a number that might only work well for Marah. And "Burly and Johnson" belongs on the closing credits to some depraved version of Sesame Street if anywhere at all. If you can endure that abysmally low point, Lambchop will make it up to you with the sweet, Americana lullaby "Playboy, The Shit" and "Mr. Crabby" -- the latter a mid-tempo alt.country gem with horns and pedal steel working in tandem. And the momentum continues with the slow, droning "Gloria Leonard", including some odd but effective sounds crashing against each other in the distance.
It's strange to find the second half of an album sounding more focused and consistent than the first, but that is what has happens here. The homestretch shows Lambchop at the top of their game, especially with the lovely "The Old Fat Robin" and equally glowing "The Distance from Her to There", as Wagner hits some high country soul notes. The record closes with the unusual but somewhat appealing "Gettysburg Address". Yes, that Gettysburg Address -- the one Lincoln gave a few years ago, at least that's what they'll have you believe. After the first line, Wagner goes off on a tangent and it turns into another sleeper pick. "Why does this one mean more? Why does this one mean less?" Wagner sings as if he's talking about the contents of The Decline of Country & Western Civilization Part II: The Woodwind Years.