Last year, lambchop were commissioned by the San Francisco International Film Festival to perform a live score to soundtrack FW Murnau’s. 1927 proto-film noir masterpiece Sunrise. It so happened that Lambchop’s leader, Kurt Wagner, had already embarked upon a self-imposed mission to write a song a day. As a result of both endeavours he ended up with so many songs that there are now two new Lambchop albums, each containing 12 songs. So is this the alt.country equivalent of OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below?
Not quite. For a start, these are two albums palpably conceived by the same creative spirit. Nor is there any great musical gulf between the two. It would be fair to consider Aw Cmon as slightly darker in its moods, and No You Cmon its more playful brother. But the same concerns link both records. Consider them as two different ways of telling the same story.
Musically, Wagner has achieved a fusion of the outgoing, string-driven country-soul heard on 2000’s Nixon?most Lambchop followers will be glad to see the full line-up returning?and the reluctant intimacy of 2002’s low-key Is A Woman. There is nothing on either album which recaptures the generous exuberance of Nixon’s “Up With People”, but that doesn’t mean emotional generosity is nowhere to be found.
Aw Cmon begins very much as The Love Below begins, with the orchestral lustre of an instrumental?here “Being Tyler”, a tribute to these albums’ main musical voice, guitarist William Tyler?quickly succeeded by distant atonal guitar shrieks and then the intimate balladry of “Four Pounds In Two Days”, where Wagner’s baritone muses: “They say you walk around as if a ghost had crossed your path.” Business as usual, then.
“Steve McQueen” ups the emotional ante, if not the volume; against stately strings, Wagner agonises over a pet theme: the reality of who a person is and how far that overlaps with the image a person projects (“Is this just another way to be me?not Steve McQueen?”). Songs like “Nothing But A Blur From A Bullet Train” are Carveresque in their depictions of waning lives clinging on to the past, with the introductory imagery of “wearing a halo of mist”, the meticulous checklist of memories (“The picturesque old quay house, the car park”) and the string outro spookily reminiscent of Psychic TV’s “Message From The Temple”.
Aw Cmon methodically works towards the emotional peak of the stunning closing track, “Action Figure”, which Wagner sings beautifully, sometimes with fear, other times with barely contained fury. The lyric starts with a touch of self-mockery: “I heard a rumour that I’m sad.” But the self-mockery then turns outwards into revelation?or will it (“Let’s let the cat out of the bag/Let’s let the neighbourhood go bad”)? Finally, he rages quietly about the compromise under which all life must endure: “I will learn to look away/When there are things I cannot bear.”
No You Cmon begins with a more cheerful instrumental, “Sunrise”, halfway through which the hitherto absent pedal-steel of Paul Niehaus makes one of its brief appearances. But before long, the emotion which has been slowly simmering throughout both albums finally boils over. On (the presumably ironically-titled) “Nothing Adventurous Please,” we are treated to the unprecedented spectacle of Lambchop rocking out; rocking out, moreover, in the motorik style of Neu!, with a touch of Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth. But even this will scarcely prepare you for the bubblegum of “Shang A Dang Dang”, wherein Wagner’s vocals mutate into Vic Reeves singing in the “club style”?quite possibly Lambchop’s first hit single, if they want one.
“Under A Dream Of A Lie” is the closest either album comes to recapturing the post-Mayfield soul of Nixon, a delectable ballad, even if it begins with the words “Give up like a man!” And then another unexpected side to Lambchop is revealed on the instrumental “Jan 24” which, with its staccato piano and deliberately clunky ’70s pop-rock rhythm, sounds like Michael Nyman auditioning for Lieutenant Pigeon.
But beware of the superficial jollity, for this foreshadows what is perhaps the bleakest and most disturbing song on either of these albums, “The Gusher”. Over an MOR samba rhythm, Wagner, in his lowest and scariest of voices, sings lines like: “The damp stains upon your jeans… The water in the sink turns brown/And you scrape your skin with a razor.” Eventually a chant of “Who can turn the world on with this smile?” sardonically manifests itself, and as the “Paranoid” guitar riff storms back in, Wagner climaxes the song with a reassuring “You’re gonna make it…”, then adding a frightening snarl of “…after all”.
Nothing left for Wagner to do now except sum both records up with “Listen”, where again he agonises about the uselessness of language for This Sort Of Thing. “Confused and caught up/Could you give it up for this?/I will listen to what you’ve got to say/You said it anyway.” Is Wagner singing at us? “They may not work it out,” he concludes to himself.
In fact, it’s not hard to work out that these two albums really do function as a double, and certainly represent the group’s most complete work to date. Their quiet ambition still provides an undemonstrative mockery of the limitations of so many other contemporary rock acts. And, above all, they provide continuing evidence of Wagner’s unmatched ability to put a microscope to the most seemingly conventional of stories or musical forms and, by sheer dint of his imagination, turn them into something which is quietly but extremely unconventional.