Review: Lambchop – Mr. M

Mr. M is Lambchop’s eleventh album. The story is that singer-songwriter-guitarist Kurt Wagner had given up music after the death of his friend Vic Chesnutt, to concentrate on painting. Then he was approached by indie folk producer and band member Mark Nevers with an idea. The idea was ‘psycha-Sinatra’ (personally I would have gone for ‘Sinatra-delia’ but different strokes for different folks). Mr. M was consciously conceived as a studio creation.

What this means is that the goal is not to re-create a live experience but to use sound to express something. At first it’s hard to know what Mr. M is trying to express. But part of Mr. M’s charm is its deceptive musical simplicity. Mournfully plucked guitar, washes of strings, piano, and Wagner’s clipped, quiet vocals shuffle placidly along.  The record doesn’t demand your attention. But after listening to it for the second or third time, you’ll realize how good it is.

Kurt Wagner is an experienced musician. That comes through in the rich, subtle music on this album. But more than that, he is an experienced person and the more you hear his voice the more this becomes apparent. It sounds lived-in. It’s the kind of voice whose owner understands that sometimes it’s safer to withhold things. His lyrics are both quietly amusing and surreal. They don’t let on. What they do let on are clues to deeper feelings. At times he sounds like a modern-day David Ackles. However whereas David Ackles told stories of forgotten or troubled characters, Wagner takes centre-stage as one of the characters. The songs on Mr. M are reflections on the experience.

If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that the songs are somewhat samey and can seem to bleed together. Wagner’s singing, great as it is, takes much the same form on each song. In fact, this is the one thing that prevents the album from being as good as it could be. As it is however, Mr. M is a great piece of work. The style, a well-cultivated mixture of country and lounge, doesn’t fall into the trap of sounding like an ironic pastiche, something that would catch less experienced artists like flies to honey.

It’s unknown whether Lambchop have been completely rescued from the risk of being lost to Mr. Wagner’s paintings, or whether this was one last, cryptic message to the world of a band that have always confounded and touched people at the same time. If this is simply a resurfacing stepping stone to more then we can certainly look forward to whatever comes next. If it’s a final curtain call, then we can be thankful that they did such a damned great job of it.

Tim Richards