In Nashville—where the art-country orchestra symphonette Lambchop was born and raised—there’s a radio station that plays the old oldies, the real “Music Of Your Life” stuff, from the ’40s and ’50s. For a time, late at night, the station even played old broadcasts, anchored by a honey-voiced DJ who’d been dead for years, but who from the beyond the grave was still filling the space between old Andrews Sisters and Andy Williams records with ad copy so mellifluously intoned that they gave the corner florist the air of an elegant salon. There are moments on Lambchop’s new LP, Mr. M, that sound like they could’ve been carted-up and sitting at that station for decades, just waiting for someone to make a mistake at 2 a.m. and press the wrong button—or perhaps the right one. From the minimal (but lush) strings on the record to the dapper gentleman on the cover, Mr. M carries itself with a certain old-fashioned grace and dignity, even as frontman Kurt Wagner is singing about being irritated with his relatives, or about trying to reach a loved one by phone. Wagner makes the ordinary seem grand and mysterious.
Lambchop has never made even a mediocre album, let alone an outright bad one, but the band has had its higher highs. Mr. M is in the same class as Nixon, Is A Woman, and the underrated Damaged, in that it’s unified and purposeful, combining what Lambchop already knows how to do with some tricks the band hasn’t really attempted before. Specifically, Mr. M is more open with its arrangements, introducing more vamps, drones, and lengthy instrumental passages to play against the band’s supple easy-listening music and Wagner’s “poetry of the everyday.” The instrumental “Gar,” for example, sounds like an extended TV morning show intro for four of its five minutes, until it heads off into the heavens unexpectedly at the end, while “Betty’s Overture” would be equally apt playing beneath the opening credits of an ’80s soap or ’70s drive-in movie. There’s a tension throughout Mr. M between the surface pleasantness and the underlying unrest.
Mostly, Mr. M is exemplary Lambchop because its so unmistakably Wagner’s vision, whether he’s giving a George Jones-style loper a layer of soft distortion on “The Good Life (Is Wasted)” or waxing evangelical on the apocalyptic lullaby “Nice Without Mercy.” And if nothing else, Mr. M contains a two-song 14-minute section as lovely and sublime as anything in the Lambchop discography, as the skittering, jazzy “Gone Tomorrow” gives way to the leisurely “Mr. Met,” which contemplates the universe in its divine, scientific, and personal wonder. Both songs go through multiple changes, and add voices and sounds as they rise to a peak and then slowly retreat, like the waves of the air and sea—cresting, but ever-lapping.