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Essay: Lambchop is a Painter

I Am Not the Kind of Man to Live Comfortably: Lambchop is a Painter
by Eric Rosenberg

Art is rarely paced to life. That is why it is art, why we invariably make distinctions between art and life, need to think of each as not the other. Our encounter with art affects us physiologically, psychologically, emotionally, intellectually, socially, in ways we determine to be meta experiential: art enlivens the mind, quickens the pulse, gets the foot tapping, interrupts the silence or the blindness that as frequently as not mark our real. So when we find art feeling, sounding, looking like, making time like life, like the struggle to get out of bed in the morning, or process, even simply stare at, the evening news, or butter toast, go for a jog–dodging traffic in the morning, or rain in the afternoon, counting the minutes until a loved one reappears, or our favorite TV show comes on, or the next Lambchop song kicks in, or just counting the minutes because that is what we do, art is unsettling, startling, even comforting perhaps, taking our hand, wanting to hold our hand, sometimes squeezing too tight, at other times just barely holding on, sometimes merely confirming “I find it hard to live life comfortably.”

Make no mistake about it, Kurt Wagner, once, and again as much a visual as a musical artist, (and a country singer; a great country singer–the catch, the hiccup, the hollow in his voice is fifty years of Nashville living; he didn’t cover Don Williams for nothing,) makes little distinction–in that place where form becomes illumination, becomes radiance–between the hand holding the brush, and the fingers on that hand, twisting the tuning pegs on his guitar. Mr. M could have been called Is A Painter. The album’s tempo isn’t only musical, in the expected sense—at times it is almost genuinely still–save to say that it has a rhythm of its own. Slowcore? No. But medium, walking, breathing, arguing, missing, losing core. Sighcore, perhaps.

As a result, Mr. M’s movement, its ensemble form, is as much that of the hand putting brush to palette, or into jar of pigment, drawing up toward canvas; applying horsehair, or squirrel to linen, then stepping back to consider, before repeating, and moving on. Lambchop’s pace is as much visual–pulling in towards the canvas, making a mark, stepping back to examine it, deciding perhaps to revise, erase, build up, redraw, right then and there–as it is about fingers on strings, or stick or brush on snare or cymbal.

“Gone Tomorrow”’s beautiful line, “looks like water comes from somewhere else” (which uncannily shifts to “looks like the water comes from somewhere else” the second time around, moving startlingly from the almost philosophical, the zen-like, to the specific, the momentary, now,) gets at something of this disjunction, this synergy, the ultimately irresistible unity that gradually emerges. The way in which energy seems drawn from its very own lack; from stasis, and quiet, sleep perhaps, and those involuntary twitches that mark the dreaming body to those loved ones, or lovers, who watch us sleep. Mr. M’s sonorities are as much about the spaces between notes and words, about the absences, about what we don’t or perhaps even can’t hear, as what is evident. (The dogs in other words are not in fact barking at no one, but simply at those parts only they can hear.)

This is not to say Lambchop has no beat; but that Mr. M is as much the beat of painting and its unpredictable resemblance to life, to thought and consciousness, as the more controlled patterns of expectation a given musical form will lead us to anticipate, follow, even tap our feet to. Who has ever danced to a painting? Lambchop has us doing so, and humming along. (No coincidence then that one of the greatest abstract painters of the last half century, one of the greatest Minimalists, Robert Ryman, bears that name, claims Nashville as birthplace and as a result is barely once removed from the Opry’s most memorable home, its birthplace?)

This then might explain to some extent the relatively massive appeal of the band in Europe, where proximity of a high or fine art aesthetic, or beat, however subtly, almost imperceptibly indicated, is bound to connect more readily than back home in Americana, however alt we may be. Mr. M ought however to tip the balance sheet. For this is Lambchop’s American album. In that light beyond the sunset, near that little country church, Little Jimmy Dickens is smiling.
Lambchop come from Nashville, and, not to put too fine a point on aesthetic origins, visual and musical, Memphis too, at the very least. Not Paris or Bloomsbury or even the West Village. In defense, Mr. M offers up an irresistible reading of “The Good Life Is Wasted On Me,” proof as sure as DNA of some of Kurt Wagner’s origins, and a stone country classic–begging for George Jones’ cover, lamenting in the very fiber of the track Jim Reeves’ missed opportunity. As sure as Kurt and his comrades tread the boards, Lambchop’s bandstand is home to Floyd Cramer tinkling “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Al Green bending and levitating the same tune; the Fisk Jubillee Singers (they first sang at the Ryman in 1913, a good thirty years before the Opry moved in,) raising down a spiritual claim, Christine Kittrell (yeah, I know, who?!) chugging “L&N Special” a little further down the track and into its berth at the old Union Station, Joe Simon imprecating “The Chokin’ Kind,” maybe even a brief smear of Boots Randolph’s sax lines in the extended, gorgeous, almost Chillwave-meets-Brubeck-on-an-L&N Freight instrumental break that bracingly blankets and brings the second half of “Gone Tomorrow” into the station.

Lambchop has at least three Nashville parents (yeah, a concept as gently skewed as Mr. M can sometimes be, techno blips skittering across the middle of a track, crackles, pops and static here and there; voiceovers and voiceunders crackling everyday speech into a melody, pulsating drums sounding like synths; is Mr. M Lambchop’s Trip Hop album, the first to be reviewed in MixMag; offered for download on 1. The overt or obvious (Cramer, Don Williams, Countrypolitan–but that was Nixon; maybe “Chamber Country” at this point.) The otherworldly, the spiritual, resistance, the damaged and resilient (Fisk, Jubilee Singers, Harvey’s Lunch Counters.) And the secret history: local airwaves at night (Night Train. WLAC, “Hoss Allen” and John R.) And then there’s the kissin’ cousins. If, like Kurt Wagner, you grew up in Nashville in the mid-1960s, whether you knew it then or not, you certainly now know, even cherish, almost mystically, that while you sat in second or third grade in February of 1966, likely not more than a mile or so away, Bob Dylan was laying down a good chunk of Blonde on Blonde in Columbia Records’ Nashville studio. A little over a year later, John Wesley Harding, perhaps an even more fitting ancestor, would emerge from the same studio. Stuck Inside of Nashville with the Memphis Blues Again!

Mr. M’s miracle is in making this lineage weightless, a permeation in the best, most translucent way; in a way that belongs to the atmosphere, an effect I think that comes down in part from the ever varying size of the group, the rich simultaneously minimal and densely layered arrangements, how one senses the surface pigment’s underpainting peeking through here and there, at the same time as the shimmer and glow of the most evident plane holds the listener in its thrall. The past is claimed rather than rejected, tested for its ability to heal in the face of the damage it once laid down. Lambchop not too long ago had gripping access to that word, as adjective, as title, to describe a state of being. Apropos of that, Mr. M might have been called Loss, or better yet Healing. The past is channeled to face the present where it becomes bearable. A soulmate on the coast, the dogs barking at no one, Grandpa coughing in the kitchen. “I think of you today,” knowledge is difficult, fear makes us visual, life made you beautiful, turn on your radio. The strings sound good. And we do the best we can.

Mr. M is Lambchop’s love album. It’s a good year for the roses.