Lambchop portray the sad side of entertainment
Kurt Wagner has the spirit of a true auteur. Backed by his ever-evolving ensemble, he is the face of Lambchop, a loose collective – that’s more an idea than a demarcated band – who effuse a sound that is like its own logistical nature: uncertain, wobbly and quietly capricious. They establish such a poignancy in their uniquely slow, restrained pieces that each have the potential to acquire an instant personal significance, the kind that manufactures a moment, that fixes a memory to a melody. But just as much as they can eke slow and schmaltzy, they can find that sweet spot of self-forgetting revelation in grand instrumental climaxes that overpower Wagner’s quaint voice that fluctuates between a soft murmur and a muffled, twitchy drawl.
Some things are better left unchanged, unable to be over-perfected, and that holds true for Lambchop in their latest LP, Showtunes. Like anything they’ve done before, it still emotionally floors. It seems Lambchop has only become more like themselves, blossoming dramatically more inward in the confines of their self-created world.
Compared to their previous output, Lambchop embrace more neoteric touches in Showtunes, jettisoning a luddite rejection of effects both instrumentally and vocally. “Drop C” begins with underwater ambient keys while the soundbites that play alongside cast a feeling like having a TV on in the background, adding an uneasiness beneath the serenity overhead. It then morphs into swelling brass to Wagner slovenly singing over and over: “like somebody’s mother, you sang the blues,” his voice redolent of a spent and haggard man with methodical patience like what you hear in latter-day Cave or Cash. Back to back, “Unknown Man” and “Blue Leo” use auto-tuned vocals. While the former is grounded more in analog instrumentation without too much effect artifice, “Blue Leo” has no coherent infrastructure and the classic piano, atmospheric synths and pixel-punch percussion play at whim, streaking across formlessly as Wagner sings enigmas: “better here on Earth than it is in Heaven.”
The defining quality of Showtunes is its self-commentating performative aura: Every song seems to be conscious of its purpose to entertain, its showmanship that demands an audience, but lacks the verve to achieve its best. It evokes a hapless, unsuccessful performer down on their luck but still hellbent on getting to the glamor of it all. The horns in “Fuku” seem to have given up and gone limp, the same horns that would’ve been loud as elephants in a swing tune in its heyday. With Wagner’s gentle but dejected vocals the song seems both hopeless and rote like it’s the umpteenth demo of a cabaret for a depraved crowd looking for kicks that were once actually felt.
Showtunes is pieced together in featherlight fragments that are delicate and precious, beautifully beat and resilient. It telegraphs an important message to any dreamer: It’s only from those hopeless lows that make it possible to spring back up, so don’t lose face in the downtime; the only way is up.