Is a dish best served with mint sauce
'Play loud!' is an injunction occasionally written on the back of a sleeve by a pop group determined or desperate to hit you with everything they've got. Listening to Lambchop's Is a woman, you expect the text on the back cover to read 'play quietly...', but instead, and as usual, the group suggest that you 'visit the country music hall of fame in nashville, tn'. This is music that doesn't tell you to pipe down at the back, there. Music that doesn't bang a gavel to bring you to order. It has all the time in the world, and it will wait until it has your full attention. And when you are ready to listen, it will begin. Was that a pin dropping in the background?
More than any other pop record I can think of, Is a woman needs to be played in its entirety. Picking and skipping songs, or starting halfway in, doesn't seem to work. The first two songs in particular, 'The daily growl' and 'The new cobweb summer', generate a sense of anticipation which intensifies the way you listen to each and every note. Like the opening bars of Miles Davis' 'In a silent way/It's about that time', or 'Myrrhman' on Talk Talk's Laughing stock, they set the mood and the tone from which the rest rises and falls.
Is a woman is also the definition of an album that requires you give it time to learn the mystery of its ways. After the first listen, Kurt Wagner's songs float eerily out of reach, like that childhood memory game where you have perhaps a minute to remember which objects lie before you on a tray. The mood is redolent of and insistent upon quietude; there's a delicacy, almost a hesitancy, that recalls Al Green's 'Simply Beautiful' (although Kurt is maybe not quite as intent as Al on bedding the object of his affection). The songs are skewed, partial portraits or still lives, evoking interiors all the darker for the bright sunlight outside. And when the line of the song ventures onto the porch, where indeed it may have had its genesis, it's not hard to imagine Kurt in a rocking chair, popping a can, his dog by his side, resting its head on its paws.
Lambchop have followed a great album - Nixon - with a better and very different one. While strings and brass dominated their last outing, the signature instrument here is Tony Crow's piano, gently spelling out the melody that Kurt's singing only ever suggests. With such a pool of musicians to call upon, if Lambchop dream or think of a sound, they can have it. When they play live, it's as orchestral an experience as you'll get from a pop group. Music comes at you from every sector of the stage, and I for one wish that there were many more such groups or collectives who had a care to combine the dynamic of live sound and the breadth of recorded sound, without that meaning the pageantry of a Soul Revue or an over-egged Rock Pudding.
Is a woman is an odd sort of title for an album. It sets up jokey alternatives: Lambchop Is an evangelical vegetarian cult; Is an old mate of mine from Taunton; Is a stalwart of the lunchtime menu at my local greasy spoon. Whether they were trying to suggest that their feminine was firmly to the fore or not, these are the songs of a singular writer performed with confident restraint by a group of musicians who trust that writer and his muse. (It would seem that they rehearse in her basement, after all.) The music is as soft as lace, domestic-spiritual, happy with its lot. The anger has burnt itself out. It may be a dog's life, but there is more than one way of looking at that seemingly bald statement.
Kurt has lived in Nashville, Memphis and Chicago, and something in the water of each (not just their musical reputations) informs the sound and sensibility of Lambchop. Perhaps that's what makes American music often feel more multidimensional than British music - the variance of styles possible in such a large country, and their being brought back together again over the decades as the world grows smaller. The differences in music formed by life in, say, either Glasgow, Liverpool or London are obviously much less evident. British cities tend to make for focussed rather than panoramic music.
The only flaw I can find in this set of songs, aside from the occasional oddly fumbled lyric, comes at the very end. The title track itself metamorphoses into a gentle white reggae number with a generic Kingston-esque beat which bears more than a passing resemblance to UB40's version of 'Red, red wine'. Even the Sisters of Mercy cover (!) on the bonus CD would have been better. Maybe Kurt was attempting to portray the soft, sashaying presence of the woman herself, but straying from the roots that inform Lambchop's music - that trinity of cities - wasn't a good idea. The second half of 'Is a woman' (the song) is cod in the way that the Curtis-inspired soul of Nixon wasn't, even taking into account Kurt's strained falsetto. Soul is in Lambchop's, er, bones; reggae isn't. I suppose the idea was to sign off the album, push a sense of finality by using a style out of nowhere. I wish the album lingered on the edge of ending before letting silence take over, just as at the outset the music takes its time to begin.
There's not much more you could ask of Is a woman. I'm not sure how it will sound to the Lambchop virgin; apparently even members of the group were a little uncertain when faced with Kurt's vision of the record. Perhaps I should recommend starting with Nixon, then working backwards to What another man spills, before taking on Is a woman. It might make more sense that way. But if you're the adventurous type (and hey, as a reader of Tangents, you must be), and initial bewilderment is something you can countenance, possibly even enjoy, treat yourself to this latest slice of Wagner.
© Daniel Williams 2002