Although frequently pigeon-holed as an alt-country band for most of their career, there’s always been much more to the Nashville collective than that narrow label allows room for. Centred around the sometimes surreal, but always sincere songwriting of Kurt Wagner, Lambchop quickly evolved beyond their traditional county roots into a soulful hybrid of Americana, chamber pop, R&B, jazz and art rock. Over the past 22 years, whichever direction they’ve taken their sound in, critical praise hasn’t been far behind.
Starting out as an effort to create music which might appeal to the tastes of his wife Mary Mancini, their 12th full-length ‘FLOTUS’ (meaning ‘For Love Often Turns Us Still’) sees Kurt Wagner taking inspiration from their relationship and his wife’s political career (she’s the current chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party), as well as from pop, electronica, krautrock and hip hop.
The shift towards incorporating electronic sounds will come as a surprise to some, but those who are aware of Kurt Wagner‘s 2015 electronic side project HeCTA may have seen something partly resembling ‘FLOTUS’ coming. However, unlike HeCTA, ‘FLOTUS’ incorporates its electronic influences into the detailed and beautifully arranged sound of Lambchop in a typically subtle way.
The biggest surprise to come from ‘FLOTUS’ is that Kurt Wagner has chosen to experiment with processed vocals, being inspired to do so after attending a Shabazz Palaces show. His wife may have preferred his voice “the way it was“ but compared to recent efforts, Bon Iver in particular, Kurt Wagner‘s application of the technology is very restrained and tastefully done, adding a different dimension to his soulful vocals without ever overdoing it.
Bookended by its two longest tracks, 12-minute opener ‘In Care of 8675309’ and 18-minute closer ‘The Hustle’ were the first and the last pieces created for the album. ‘In Care of 8675309’ is the most Lambchop sounding track here, added after ‘FLOTUS’ had already been test pressed, its laid-back, soul-infused groove carrying his processed vocals while he repeatedly sings about the asbestos sidings of “house of cancer” next door (Kurt Wagner is a cancer survivor).
‘FLOTUS’ may end with ‘The Hustle’ but creatively that’s where it all began, inspired by a dance witnessed at a Quaker wedding he attended with his wife. Completed before he came across Shabazz Palaces, it’s the only track on the album which doesn’t feature processed vocals, sounding more like Johnny Cash over a krautrock-inspired rhythm featuring a subtle blend of a piano and horns.
In between those two there are another nine tracks to enjoy, with the combination of the minimalist piano of Tony Crow and the bass lines of Matt Swanson standing out on the structureless ‘Directions To The Can’ and the shuffling ‘Relatives #2’. Elsewhere, ‘Writer’ offers the only real attempt at straightforward pop, adding horns to its piano and bass combo, while ‘NIV’ has Kurt Wagner using processed vocals more as an instrument to accompany its running bassline and the sweet tandem of synth and piano work.