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Review: Lambchop – “Nixon” (2000)

“He’s not even a very good singer.”

It’s easy to forget about Lambchop. I seem to “re-discover” their discography every couple years, and each time I’m struck by how long it’s been since I last dove in. I don’t mean to suggest, by any means, that Lambchop is forgettable, only that there’s something in the low-key Nashville outfit’s sober, calculated methodology that readily lends itself to the background. There’s something about the dependable sturdiness of their catalogue, or maybe the authority of frontman Kurt Wagner’s hushed but confident boom-croon,  that makes its quiet excellence unsurprising.

Nixon always seems to be the record that pulls me back. It’s likely  some combination of the trippy gospel choruses, the dripping wet string arrangements, and the polite touches of Motown brass that color this tidy collection of great-on-their-own songs. Subtle electronic flourishes bubble up from the margins and evaporate through the house like a sweet steam, making room for Wagner’s singular vocals while the band demonstrates that all-too-rare and admirable ability of knowing when to scale back and when to tower over its own landscape.

If you’re looking for an example of a perfectly produced audio recording, this is it. There’s space for everything here. For a band whose shifting membership routinely tops double digits, Nixon never comes close to sounding crowded. This carries over thematically as well, with Wagner’s lyrics touting a breezy, observational quality while simultaneously embodying an unpretentious poetic wisdom. Lines like “The lights outside tonight are far from home / and I’m out drinking in the yard,” in the tradition of the great American domestic minimalists like John Cheever and Raymond Carver, communicate more than the sum of their parts, prompting the listener to color the negative space of its image and help push it toward profundity.

From the opening nostalgic wash of “The Old Gold Shoe,” through the near-neoclassical arrangements of “The Book I Haven’t Read,” one thing’s clear: Lambchop has “Americana” in its crosshairs. This isn’t to imply that the band has determined such an opaque idea as being in need of a good assassination — although it might be in our best cultural interest to retire the term from our musical lexicon entirely — but rather that they’ve determined the idea in desperate need of a thorough re-imagining. And that’s exactly what Nixon does so successfully: it explodes American roots music in the smallest terms possible. It tinkers, prods and pokes at the very idea of it, until the end result leaves us looking simultaneously back at our rich musical history — from R&B to country music, folk and even punk rock (see: “The Butcher Boy”) –while nodding forward at the possibilities of our inheritance.

Jezy

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