Kurt Wagner reprogrammes the mighty Lambchop… “Take it on the chin!”

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It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that a record apparently named after the First Lady Of The United States, released four days before a former First Lady will hopefully become president, might have a polemical agenda. Hunting through the crumpled textures and digital folds of Lambchop’s 12th album, however, overt political content is hard to find. A song called “JFK” seems more of an exercise in dislocation, a rifling through of disparate images that coalesce around Kurt Wagner’s repeated declaration he “talks too much”. A lyric hidden in “Writer” might hint at the political climate of the past few months, as Wagner sings about how, “Now we walk with weather most uncertain/Now we weather things beyond control.” Then again, coming from a band who called their most famous album Nixon (2000) mostly out of mischief, it might be some entirely different, private, ordeal.

In fact, if FLOTUS has a subject, it is Wagner’s wife, and the enduring strength and nuances of their relationship. Mary Mancini is currently chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party, and has previously attempted to run for the state senate. Elections and policies, then, provide a wry backstory. In the foreground, emotional realpolitik dominates, so that FLOTUS shapes up as a tender exploration of a longterm marriage, and the acronym actually stands for “For Love Often Turns Us Still”. The first words that Wagner sings on “The Hustle” are “I don’t want to leave you ever/And that’s a long, long, time.”

 

Those words take a startlingly long time to arrive – five minutes, to be precise. You may already have encountered all 18 minutes of “The Hustle”, as radical a statement of intent as this capricious and cherishable band have ever made. For while Wagner has dabbled on the periphery of electronic music before, “The Hustle” and FLOTUS signify a wholehearted co-option of 2016 aesthetics into the Lambchop sound. These are songs built on a peculiarly hazy beat science, where Wagner’s cracked voice is manipulated through the magic of Autotune and myriad other digital processes. The horny-handed earnestness of Americana as some perceive it seems a long way away, as “Directions To The Can” tears away at the structural norms of a song. “It’s all in the modern problems,” Wagner counsels, “Take it on the chin.”

The miracle of FLOTUS, though, is how gracefully Lambchop negotiate the entente between their country-soul of old, and this brave new world. If Bon Iver’s 22, A Million sounds, to these ears at least, rather cluttered and overthought in its technological innovation, FLOTUS is remarkable for its perhaps illusory effortlessness. The space and measure of great Lambchop records like Is A Woman (2002) remain; the sense that there is time to breathe, and consider a whole spectrum of feelings, between each note. Even in the fractured terrain of a song like “Directions To The Can”, faithful retainers come to the fore: Matt Swanson, providing a through line with his discreetly funky bass; the pianist Tony Crow, a master of the minimalist fleck to the degree that he stands comparison with Chris Abrahams from Australian jazz improvisers, The Necks.

Autotune has become such a crutch for a certain kind of performer, these past few years, that its potential to synthesise sadness now feels rather clichéd. Wandering through a festival last summer – or through radio stations most days – it felt as if navelgazing solo artists in the vein of James Blake, and an attendant school of digitally enhanced moping, had become the new norm. Wagner, though, is still too whimsical a presence to be comfortably absorbed into a genre. His experiments betray the delight of a shy man able to subsume himself into the warp and weft of his music, and the joy of a smoker who discovers that his disintegrating voice can be reconstructed, and those lost high notes can be relocated. FLOTUS suggests, even, that the technology is kinder and more interesting when applied to singers whose voices are not naturally melismatic. The setting of “Directions To The Can” might be more audacious, but Wagner hasn’t been this close to Curtis Mayfield’s upper range since “What Else Could It Be?” on Nixon.

As one might expect of southern gentlemen, the shocks of FLOTUS are deployed by stealth, at least initially. For its first 30 seconds, as the flesh and blood band ease into the genteel groove of “In Care Of 8675309”, you could even be listening to one of those latterday Lambchop albums that have maybe been a little too easy to take for granted. A peremptory click of drumsticks, however, heralds the arrival of Autotuned Wagner, an electronically-augmented interloper in comfortingly familiar environs. Over 12 minutes, he pieces together an impressionistic narrative that keeps looping back to the “house of cancer” next door to Wagner and Mancini’s place; a property, blessed with asbestos siding, whose inhabitants would blast out the contemporary hip hop that fed into the Lambchop sonic upgrade.

More than those neighbours, though, it is the musical choices at work inside his own home that dictate the form of FLOTUS. The title track is like a vintage country ballad chopped and screwed into a groggy new shape, with its old-fashioned sentiments intact. “We used to be like children, we’ve taken a lot of turns, girl,” serenades Wagner, his authentic croak retuned to a sweeter frequency, “Still I wish it wasn’t late.” Yo La Tengo are a recurring reference point, as Wagner makes explicit with the mix CD that comes free with this month’s issue of Uncut, and there’s a further parallel with how Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley write about love: the small observations that accrue significance over time, the trials and changes that can affect but not, hopefully, destabilise a longterm relationship. It might not be immediately visceral subject matter like the hormonal gush of new love, or the trauma of a break-up. But “For Love Often Turns Us Still”, just like Yo La’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, is a testament to the artistic potential of romance sustained deep into middle age, and beyond.

“And I can take your lovin’,” Wagner coos at the end of “FLOTUS, “And I can take your love.” And FLOTUS itself emerges as the most selfless of gifts: not just because Wagner dedicates himself lyrically to Mancini, but also because the radical changes in Lambchop’s sound are designed specifically to appeal to her. Where once there was a band of 12 or more people to realise Wagner’s vision, now, at the heart of the project, there is only him, sat at the computer and crafting an album intended to satisfy her tastes, as well as her emotions. Over a 20-year career of oddities and paradoxes – how, we asked, can so many musicians make so little noise? – FLOTUS ranks as one of Lambchop’s most confounding to date: an album whose form and content are united in intimate, private purpose, but which may well turn out to be one of their best and most accessible.

“The Hustle” describes a Quaker marriage ceremony in rural Tennessee, and how the solemnities devolve into a dance party. There is a storm, and one of those wedding guest revelations about their own relationship, in the midst of a bigger celebration. “We’ll have sunshine/filtered through the phases of the fall,” Wagner sings, his own voice unfiltered now, “And I fell so very hard/For you.”

Q&A: KURT WAGNER

Given the release date of FLOTUS being so close to the election, the title seems somewhat serendipitous…

It’s totally by coincidence. Dude, we turned this record in over a year ago, and they gave us a year-off release date and I continued to do stuff. They’d test-pressed the album but then I added the first song [“In Care Of 8675309”] because I was pretty excited about it.

The title was personal, because of my wife’s role in politics. I’m essentially trying to design and invent a record that she’d like, but what she does now is part of my life. Politics have become a daily part of our lives, due to her position. It feeds into the notion of being supportive of your partner; FLOTUS is a supportive role, and it was curious to me that this is my role now. If we go to an event together, I am FLOTUS.

The whole LP seems to be a tribute to the miracle of an enduring relationship.

Well it’s kind of worked out that way. I don’t even think my wife’s aware of all this – it’s something that she’ll probably read about in your article. But that’s who I’ve always been as a writer, I just reflect upon the things around me that make an impact, my friends and loved ones. This is no different, it’s just a more in-depth thesis. Other people write about love from their own point of view, but it’s inclusive to your experience.

That’s one of the things that make “The Hustle” so moving and so profound, I think.

When you go to a wedding as a couple, it’s an emotionally loaded event where you’re bound to reflect, at some point. At a Quaker wedding, where there’s no-one officiating, it’s even more apparent, because the couple just address each other, maybe people from the audience are moved to stand up and express something, and it all starts to build; it’s really quite moving. It magnifies the experience more than just having a preacher up there, and then everybody cuts loose. The song’s a pretty literal, almost journalistic description of that experience. A colleague of Mary’s got married and it was a Quaker wedding out in the country. There was a rainstorm in the middle, then everybody was getting down at the end. I didn’t know why all these people knew how to synchronise their dancing, and then Mary explained to me it was the fucking Hustle.

Did you always have a clear concept for how FLOTUS was going to sound?

Not really, it started several years ago. I was just trying to figure out how to take the things we learned from making the HeCTA record [Wagner’s 2015 electronic side project] and apply them in some fashion to what Lambchop does. So as you can tell on “The Hustle” [the first track recorded for FLOTUS], the vocal isn’t yet integrated in the way it is on the rest of the record, and it’s because I hadn’t yet discovered how to live process. That was a pretty significant thing for me. I was fortunate enough to stumble into a Shabazz Palaces performance where I saw them using this piece of equipment.

I’m still kinda like a hillbilly or a hick. I mean, I’m not super-sophisticated about this stuff, I’m just trying to use these tools to be soulful and expressive, and go about it in very limited ways. This piece of gear I’m using is pretty standard stuff; they invented it for singer-songwriters to accompany themselves in the mall. It happens in real time without a whole lot of fuss, it’s just a silly little box. So that’s perfect for my way of working.

There’s an irony that a band initially known for large numbers of people on stage has now been liberated by a bit of technology that allows one person to do it all.

I wrote the record myself – apart from “The Hustle”. I didn’t even play guitar, dude, I was just using my voice and this simple software programme and this crazy machine. That was it. It was incredible, I could do anything, because I wasn’t limited by my feeble guitar stylings. It literally allowed me to sing in any way I wanted to.

It helped you back up to the high notes.

Exactly.

We missed them…

Me too, man!

Has there been any awkward feedback from your more traditionalist fans?

Strangely enough it’s been crazily positive. I honesty didn’t expect that. I mean, maybe I’m a little insulated from shit I just felt this was an honest way of going about what I do as an artist. I’m always developing, if you check out anything over 20 years, there’s been some changes.

So it wasn’t some wicked attempt to alienate and subvert the entire Americana community?

No, if anything it was just an attempt to think about the music that my wife liked, and think about what was in there, and do something she’d maybe pop on her phone. That was the biggest failure. I made this stuff and thought she was really gonna love it, and I played it for her and she said, ‘Man, I really loved your voice the way it was.’ Damn!

She’s come around since, I think.

DO THE HUSTLE (AND OTHER DANCES)!

Four more of Kurt Wagner’s excursions into electronica

LAMBCHOP

Up With People (Zero 7 Remix)

CITY SLANG 2000

The rousing highlight of Nixon briefly threatened to turn Lambchop into a mainstream band, at least in Europe. Zero 7, flourishing at the time as a kind of UK analogue to Air, provided a suitably millennial remix, reconfiguring the original’s raw soul with tasteful chill-out symphonics.

 

MORCHEEBA

What New York Couples Fight About

SIRE 2002

Not dance music or electronica, exactly, but Wagner’s short period of pop recognition resulted in a hook-up with Morcheeba, coffee-table trip-hop artisans non pareil. Sadly, Wagner and one of the Charango album’s other guests – Slick Rick! – don’t cross paths among the spy movie harpsichords and shuffle beats.

 

X-PRESS 2

Give It (Featuring Kurt Wagner)

SKINT 2005

The crew of veteran acid house DJs dabbled with crossover in the early 2000s, enlisting the likes of David Byrne and the Polyphonic Spree’s Tim DeLaughter as vocalists. For Wagner’s turn, they created a gospel-tinged rave-up pitched somewhere between “Up With People” and Primal Scream’s “Come Together”. Wagner snarls impressively throughout.

 

HeCTA

The Diet

CITY SLANG/MERGE 2015

The clear precursor of FLOTUS, as Wagner teams up with latterday Lambchop members Ryan Norris and Scott Martin for a straight-up electronica album. Very much a work in progress; Wagner’s voice sits awkwardly above the beats, never quite achieving the integrated harmonies of FLOTUS.

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