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Lambchop – Nixon – Merge 25th Anniversary Re-issue


Release date: 03 February 2014
Lambchop – Nixon – Merge 25th Anniversary Re-issue
17 February 2014, 13:30 Written by Michael James Hall

Way, way back in the misty shrouds of time, let’s reverse to the celebrated year 2000, At The Drive-In are unleashing the psychotic Relationship of Command, Eminem is calling everyone, including his mum, “bitch” on the dark, cartoonish Marshall Mathers LP and during the summer months a dad-rock cabaret act called Oasis sell out 2 nights at Wembley Stadium. Back in the real world of the bedsit record player Yo La Tengo mesmerise with And Then Nothing turned Itself Inside Out, Elliott Smith drops the beautiful Figure 8 and Ryan Adams warms our cynical souls with his definitive debut Heartbreaker.

All o’ this blather is just to give you a little context into the musical world that received Lambchop’s Nixon with open, loving arms (at least in the UK – the US never woke up to them), sending the Nashville 14-piece to the upper reaches of rag and mag year end lists as well as propelling them to the unprecedented heights of a headline show at the Royal Albert Hall a couple of years later. Nixon is their gateway album, their best seller, their most highly acclaimed and arguably their most beloved.

Re-released here as part of Merge’s year long 25th anniversary celebrations, (already having seen one re-release in 2010 through City Slang that incorporated a live DVD of the aforementioned RAH show) Nixon, a tuneful, surrealist country-soul album with a glint in its eye and many an instrumental trick up the sleeve of its chief author Kurt Wagner, is worth revisiting if only to remember the genuine musical warmth of a band too often derided as ‘cold’ or overtly cerebral.

Though they very rarely provide an easy in for the casual listener and both Wagner’s lyrics and demeanour suggest a certain distance from the material and maybe the audience too, a certain archness that’s hard to escape, there are genuine feelings to be felt on Nixon, real highs and lows to add substance to the stylistic trickery and knowing nature of the album’s faux-concept intentions.

“Grumpus” is, indeed, “the one” – a langorous, louche lounger of a song, shuffling through a tangle of half-riffs and Marr-chimes, backing vocals married to sweet, high horns, those unusually direct words: “Restless boy in a restless town/You commenced to drinking” contrasting with the summer breeze of sound, finally offering the advice “Stop staring through that bitter lens”. That four beat drumstick click at the song’s centre might be their coolest, most pop moment.

The white boy soul of ‘You Masculine You’, with its sad-eyed changes, high pitched “oooohs” and Wagner’s faltering falsetto has the feel of a great Aztec Camera ballad but couched in surreal warnings/concerns – Wagner “very wrong about the cut about the bleed” and “forever benched”. The song feels genuinely passionate s it evolves into its last quarter, delving deeper down into more complex arrangements, more affecting orchestration.

Admittedly tracks like “What Else Could It Be” feel more MOR than Motown despite their intentions – certainly luscious and delicately put together but also a tiny bit bland; yet there’s the glorious nature vs nurture conundrum of “Up With People” and it’s blasting trumpet shooting up like a breathing strw from the riverbed to gloriously counteract any such concerns.

Of course Wagner’s lyrics are, across the board, tough to mine for meaning – though he gets off a few killers in the shape of “What Else Could It Be”’s throwaway “Brush the dog as you walk away” which summarises his wonky, bitter humour nicely, as well as offering “This is not a theatre kiss/More like a railway piss” on the feedback driven countrified highlight “The Distance From Her To There”.

If the stylistic focus is a little too contrived, a focus perhaps too doggedly pursued, and these are not necessarily Wagner’s most heartfelt moments (look to the raw, wonderful ‘Mr M’ – essentially an album-long tribute to longtime friend and collaborator Vic Chesnutt for that) what we do have is a clutch of excellent songs, a good few moments of chest swelling glory and, often, a sense of aural warmth that can only be achieved when very precise attention is paid to the detail of how a record sounds.

The extra disc of live acoustic performance here is a contrasting delight – Wagner performing with more gravitas and passion over the brief EP than he musters vocally over the whole record proper. It’s a little treasure for Lambchop fans.

Nixon may not have the thunder, the controversy, the tragedy or the flat-out depression of many of its contemporaries, labeled ‘alt-country’ or otherwise, but it does have a set of damn fine songs with sunlit tunes that illuminate the dark, intricate corners of Wagner’s smart, savage, soulful psyche.

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