Lambchop and Hands Off Cuba



    Lambchop has always embodied something of defiant and rebellious spirit, both in music and reality. The music defies categorization mostly because the group’s mastermind, Kurt Wagner, constantly changes its direction and players. His band has never been embraced by the Nashville music community and, with each album, has seemed to evolve a little further away from his in-town contemporaries. Lambchop has been country, soul, jazz, noise, rock, pop. It’s been grand, lush, sparse, witty, sad, funny. But through unending change and experimentation, Wagner may have finally found something: himself.


    Previous Lambchop albums seemed to be shaped around a central theme: Nixon (2000), the band’s fifth full-length, was soul; Is a Woman (2002) was sparse; Aw C’mon/No You C’mon (released on the same day in 2004) were strings. On Damaged, Wagner’s theme is Wagner. The man survived cancer and surgery from a bone-eating cyst in his jaw. He has said that these crises made him look in the mirror for inspiration and understanding. By looking inward, Wagner decided to let his “core” sound become his new statement. This does not translate into an open diary. Instead, it seems Wagner gained a new understanding of how far Lambchop has come and which direction it needs to go. After all, the defining Lambchop sound is one of complex, intricate and subtle arrangements peppered with Wagner’s sing/speak baritone drawl.


    Here, on Damaged, this formula moves to center stage and allows the music full room to breathe. There is no distinct stylistic direction in sound. The songs are unhurried, deliberate, and full of depth. Opener and highlight “Paperback Bible” features Wagner reading actual transcripts of an NPR radio show, “Swan Shop,” in which callers attempt to buy and sell items over the radio forum. Over strings and ambient noise, Wagner deadpans lines ripe for interpretation, such as “Hey, I’d like to put on/ A four-month-old rat terrier pup/ I think he’s a male/ And he’s marked up pretty and everything” and “Yeah, I’d like to find/ a twenty-seven-inch color TV/ It has to be non-working/ and RCA, ’cause I need the parts.”


    How does Damaged stack up to the Lambchop canon? It’s an interesting contradiction. The album rewards multiple listens with its sonic depth and subtle structural beauty. It has followed Lamchop tradition and evolved from its predecessor, but it lacks the unruly attitude that makes the band distinct. But nine albums in and firmly settled into a niche, what does Lambchop have left to rebel against? It seems the true test of evolution will be staying relevant after settling into this state of constancy.


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