Of all the acts saddled with the fleetingly fashionable alt. country label at the onset of the 00’s, Lambchop seemed particularly miscast. The lush textures of the Nashville collective’s 2000 breakthrough Nixon had a lot more in common with the soul symphonies of Curtis Mayfield than the pedal steel-bothering produce of their native Country Music capital’s famed Music Row.
Since then, the ever-evolving ensemble, with songwriter, singer and guitarist Kurt Wagner as its only constant component, has been striving to perfect their brand of humbly epic everyday balladry that, at its finest, locates the magic in the mundane (for evidence, see 2006’s “Paperback Bible”, a shatteringly moving musical tribute to a radio swap meet show); to borrow John Peel’s description of The Fall, another durable cult act built around a singular talent behind the microphone, Lambchop are always different, yet always the same.
This time around, they're more different than usual. The subtle electronic manipulation of Wagner's warm burr of a voice on "In Care Of 86775309" provides a clue of what's in store, even if the slow-burning 11-minute marathon is musically pretty much textbook latter-day Lambchop, albeit a particularly powerful specimen of the band's patented mini-symphonies for human experience and existence. By the baffling but utterly brilliant "Directions To The Can", anyone expecting business as usual will be splashing around in desperate search of the lifeboat as mercilessly mutated multiple Wagners, each with their own brand of the digital Blues, battle it out. Meanwhile, the band - suddenly comprising largely of androids, it seems - cook up a turbulent groove that provides an unlikely anchor for haunting keyboard chords, with every note appearing to carry the weight of not just this but some other, hitherto unknown worlds, too. "Take it on the chin", a pitch-shifted Wagner mutters in one of the few clearly decipherable lyrics. For anyone expecting FLOTUS to sound like Lambchop used to, the effect is more akin to being slapped around the chops (ha!) with a road case full of modern electronic production tools.
Get over the initial confusion and it all - well, most of it - starts to make compelling kind of sense. 2012's heartbroken and heartbreaking Mr. M took the "traditional" Lambchop sounds and templates to their logical conclusion in such a profoundly beautiful manner that trekking down the same route again would almost inevitably have led to diminishing returns. Having dabbled with electronics with side project HeCTA and keen to move Lambchop's sound to fresh terrains, Wagner - inspired by current hip hop and electronica productions by artists such as Shabazz Palaces - started working on FLOTUS material on his own with just a drum machine and a voice processor for company. The least consequential cuts here sound like they might derive directly from those early demo sessions, comprise as they do of curious sounds and bare beats in search of substance, the 'meat' to turn open-earned experiments into genuinely compelling compositions. It's also quite disconcerting to see a lyricist of Wagner's stature occasionally render his words almost incomprehensible by the most liberal dosages of auto-tune and other voice alterations by a songwriter this side of the new Bon Iver album: does he really ask "am I talking too much daffodils" repeatedly towards the end of the restlessly shifting abstractions of "JFK"? Does the same number end up with the declaration "I am a pharmacist"? If so, why, and what could it all possibly mean?
When it works (and that's most of the time), FLOTUS proves the wisdom of risk-taking over crowd-pleasing complacency. "NIV" might again mangle Wagner's natural tones to the point where the lyric sheet might as well (and could well) comprise of meaningless ululations, but the track's unique blending of what is an almost indecently insistent groove considering Lambchop's customary lack of urgency with melancholy piano and vocal melodies results in pure hypnosis, simultaneously bewilderingly alien and completely warm, comforting and accessible. The title track returns to Mr. M's downbeat ruminations, only this one's transmitted from some digitally distorted future, whilst "Writer" nods towards the uncomplicated, upbeat pop chops of the band's best-known number "Up With People". Then there's "The Hustle". Inspired by a wedding Wagner attended, this colossal, by turns deeply moving and seriously funky 18-minute electro-ballad rumination on life, love, relationships, passage of time and, why not, Van McCoy's 1975 disco smash the track shares its title with, provides the perfect amalgamation of Lambchops old and new, with an opulent, horn-powered arrangement that seems almost indecently rich on an album that's otherwise Lambchop's most stripped-back since 2001's minimalist masterpiece Is A Woman.
Instead of its usual presidential connotations, the acronym FLOTUS refers to 'For Love Often Turns Us Still'. You could swap 'love' for 'Lambchop' and arrive at a reasonable summary of this uneven but frequently spellbinding album.