I love Lambchop so much that even the thought of Kurt Wagner trying to croon via a vocoder wasn’t going to put me off…until they went to that well once too often (ie: twice) and I just haven’t really been able to care about the last few Lamchop albums – haven’t hated them at all but haven’t remembered them; I feel like that’s the worst thing that can happen when it’s an artist you love.
So it was a lovely treat to catch up with TRIP – an album that welcomes back the Lambchop of old, in a way. And also continues forward on the path far away from any “alt-country” marketing.
But the vocoder is gone and Wagner’s own distinctive bleated burr is back – he’s equal parts Wayne Coyne and Karl Blau here and we’re all the better for being able to hear that again.
Also – TRIP is a cover project. But a covers project with a nice twist. Here Wagner thought his own idiosyncratic songwriting was getting in the way of the band so he invited members to each chosen a song to cover. He stayed out of things until the end. He was there to step up and sing the tunes chosen by other players and of course written by other musicians, recorded by other artists – from the super famous (Stevie Wonder) to the rather obscure (Cleveland’s seventies pysch-rock garage-band Mirrors).
We open with Wilco’s great Reservations – here stretched to 13 minutes. It begins as a solo piano ballad, plaintive delivery, widescreen arrangement, you can almost feel a Daniel Lanois treatment, perhaps some accompanying monochrome footage shot by Anton Corbijn.
A distant ride cymbal pulse trickles in as backing-singers add their voices but as the song then fades from view we’re left with the world’s longest coda, musical detritus that won’t be for everyone but followers of this band – and in particular its recent extrapolations – will hang on the melancholy motifs, will find some solace in the sadness of the way this song, pulled apart and rebuilding itself in real time, continues on.
Next up, George Jones’ Where Grass Won’t Grow continues to feel like A Proper Country Song. Lambchop know the right reverence for this and give the song plenty of pedal steel as it deserves. Wagner is in crooner-mode here, channelling Scott Walker, playing a role. It’s gorgeous.
Shirley is the total obscurity here – by the aforementioned Mirrors. It’s like when Neil Young grabbed The Premiers’ Farmer John out of 1964 and paraded it around, grunge-soaked, in 1990. And feels a bit like one of those Donnie & Joe Emerson songs too. It’s a nice version by Lamchop, you’d believe it to be an original by the band – on account of the total obscurity of the artist that recorded it. And the weepy steel lines place this in the context of classic Lambchop albums from the early 00s.
Golden Lady, just one of roughly a dozen Stevie Wonder songs that is both somehow tender ballad and interplanetary brain-blowing funk-explosion is interpreted here as a drawled-out dirge. A bit of rough-hewn country clothing and just enough of the original’s shimmer, but no real swagger. It’s nice – and a really lovely surprise of an idea; brilliant cover version.
The two shortest tunes close the album off and definitely return us to the mid-period Lambchop, when a lot of people were just discovering the band. There’s nothing quite as sunny-pop as Nixon’s best moments but the inclusion of a Motown gem Love Is Here (And Now You’re Gone) which was made a hit by The Supremes (though I believe the pre-teen Michael Jackson version was the real inspiration here) has that almost-incongruous pop sheen that Lambchop is so good as applying.
And the final song is another obscure cover, a Yo La Tengo track, Weather Song. Apparently it’s never been recorded before and this James McNew song (he’s Yo La’s bassist, primarily, and the new kid – only been in the band some 20 years!) feels the most like a Kurt Wagner song. Which is probably why it’s the one Kurt chose.
This is a slight album – six songs, 30+ minutes, and a covers-project of course. But I feel like this is a significant return from Lambchop. I’m very happy to have and hear this.
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