It’s been nearly 20 years since Kurt Wagner assembled his
sprawling, shape-shifting ensemble under the Lambchop banner. In the interim
he’s spawned a strange new twist on traditional country, with overarched
arrangements that drape Wagner’s parched vocals like a shroud. Indeed, Wagner’s
penchant for heavy-lidded melodies and overcast ambience is evident throughout,
expressed in a set that’s paced midway between a lilt and lethargy.
Fortunately though, Mr.
M finds those low-lit ambitions yielding moments of incandescence, songs
that shimmer and shine with a subtle, affecting glow. Some take time to gain
traction, and some defy description.
Yet all radiate with a gravitas that belies the meandering drift that permeates
the album overall. The set begins on a subdued note with “If Not I’ll Just
Die,” a nocturnal ballad featuring Wagner’s smooth croon, and that pensive
rumination remains throughout. “2B2” and
“Gone Tomorrow” deliver a downward gaze, so much so that the easy, ambling “Mr.
Met” almost seems upbeat by comparison. Much of the time Wagner appears on the
verge of tears, or, more precisely, caught in an abyss. Closest comparisons favor
Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash or Mark Lanegan, although the album’s two
instrumentals – “Gar” and “Betty’s Overture” — might suggest the orchestral
invention of Van Dyke Parks.
With heart on his sleeve, Wagner opts
for sobriety, but when those strings swell, the effect can be intoxicating.
Tomorrow,” “Gar,” “2B2” LEE ZIMMERMAN