Summer soundtracks, part three: End of the evening

In 2002, my album of the summer was Lambchop’s Is A Woman. It was the perfect record for the end of the evening, friends gone, dishes loaded, a tiny splash of a nice single-malt scotch as a nightcap. A little bit countrypolitan, a little bit rock and roll, and a little bit of everything in between (sometimes their “country” is the country of Ray Charles’s New Sounds in Country and Western Music), the many-membered Lambchop also played what was my favorite show that summer for Celebrate Brooklyn, the outdoor concert series in Prospect Park.

All the necessary arrangements had been made, including blankets to spread out, food for kids and adults, and plenty of beer smuggled in to avoid the park’s high prices. Prospect Park offers what I consider to be the best summer outdoor music venue: great sound, plenty of beautiful people to watch, and the shifting colors of the gorgeously lit bandshell itself. Some concert goers wondered whether a band like Lambchop — more noted for its hushed tones than for its occasional rock flourishes — would translate well in such a wide open space. But no one outperforms Lambchop when it comes to songs that are simultaneously gentle and enormous — rolling, multi-instrumental waves of bass and woodwinds and reverb that rattle the walls of your bedroom or a small venue, and in this case they echoed off the summer sky as if it were just a ceiling.

well, this is los lobos instead of lambchop, but you get the point

At one point in the evening I needed to move closer, to get away from the chatter of the kids’ section on the back lawn and the lines of people coming and going to the bathrooms and concessions. I made my way up to the folding chairs and found an empty one tucked away somewhere in the middle, waiting just for me. I had a perfect view of Kurt Wagner, Lambchop’s frontman and principal songwriter, who performs sitting down, a folder of lyrics at his feet to help him through the songs. Wagner wore old trucker hats and fat black glasses before the Williamsburg kids did, and without their ironic appropriation. He looks like he belongs on the front porch, which makes a certain amount of sense, given that he writes songs about boredom, about quiet pleasures like your last cigarette, about repeated attempts to stop smoking, about the difficulties of conversation with the opposite sex. It’s become a cliche to say so, but Wagner has made himself American music’s premier poet of the mundane. Nestled somewhere between Randy Newman and Tom Waits, as comfortable singing the frustrated, fucked-up songs of Vic Chesnutt, James McNew, Curtis Mayfield, and F.M. Cornog as his own, Wagner delivers stop-and-start baritone ballads in a trademark mumble. He can make washing dishes into an existentialist crisis and walking the dogs into a redemptive religious ritual.

Nowhere in Lambchop’s vast oeuvre (they’ve been making music for over 15 years) is this more true than on my all-time favorite among their songs, “All Smiles and Mariachi,” from How I Quit Smoking (1996), the first record of theirs I owned. I always imagine its narrator, who’s “playing the dating game,” as sitting in a low-brow Mexican restaurant with someone he barely knows, or perhaps has known for too long:

I was watching your mouth move in and out
In little unexpected ways
Not hearing a word that you said in over twenty minutes
On occasion I grunt and give you a knowing stare
Focused on what I hope is a pivotal moment. … 

All smiles and mariachi
They’re playing the dating game theme
We ordered some cheese dip, a tea, and two light beers
I feel I should be talking, rather saying something
Instead of nodding and eating most of the chips.

Could anything be as sad as that cheese dip, the tea, and two light beers?

That night I began a protracted love-hate relationship with Lambchop’s live shows. Love, because the sheer volume of the music — the energy generated by what can sometimes consist of over a dozen performers on stage at once — fills your entire body with sound waves, head to heart to toe. Hate because I have yet to hear them play my song. “All Smiles and Mariachi!” I shouted during a quiet moment between numbers, while Kurt shuffled lyrics in his folder. “Gee,” he replied, looking up at the audience. “Brooklyn’s neat.”

Same thing happened at the many Lambchop shows to follow — at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, at the Knitting Factory (where Lambchop members also played backup for their opener, David Kilgour, formerly of the seminal Aussie post-punk band The Clean), at Bowery. After the show at Maxwell’s (where I first heard M. Ward, who opened that show, play one of his astonishing sets and where Ira from Yo La Tengo stood next to me and shushed some talkative audience members) I chatted with Kurt and his wife, Mary. He told me he couldn’t play my repeated request because he couldn’t remember the lyrics; email him next time to remind him to pack them along. So I did. Mary emailed me back to say she’d heard them rehearse it down in the basement but couldn’t promise anything. A couple years into this game, at a free show at Castle Clinton in Battery Park, I yelled out my request as usual, even though I’d started to feel like a stalker. “Oh, there you are,” Kurt said, his face twisting out a wry smile. “Well, we took a vote on it, and unfortunately the rest of the band outvoted me.”

nashville's most fucked-up country band

I’m not the kind of audience member who goes to shows as if they were church. I tend not to shush people and occasionally get shushed myself, for having the audacity to request a favorite. (You should have seen the reaction my friend Shelley and I got for requesting too many songs at a small Smog show at Tonic.) There’s something satisfying about interacting with a performer, about altering a set list or eliciting some verbal banter, knowing that you’ve helped shape the performance. I once made Georgia Hubley blush by yelling out that I loved her; of course the rest of the room whistled and cheered in agreement.

I didn’t see Lambchop on tour for their last album(s), the simultaneously released Aw, C’mon and No, You C’mon (2004). I found the two CDs to be slightly overwhelming and more rambunctious than the exquisite Is a Woman. Maybe I had burned out a little, or had my feelings hurt by repeated rejection. The night after their New York performance on that tour, someone brought a song from one of the new albums to the record club I belong to. After she played the song she mentioned the previous night’s show. “They really dug up some oldies,” she said. I winced. Don’t tell me they played “All Smiles and Mariachi,” I said. Yep. They sure had. And they’d apparently even announced it with something like: “This is an old one, but maybe some of you in the audience will recognize it.” Where was I? Home, moping, a jilted lover. Sounds like the storyline to one of their songs.

lambchop, damaged (2006)

Damaged, Lamchop’s new release (just out on Merge Records), very much recalls the quiet, laid-back thoughtfulness of Is a Woman, especially the string arrangements, the prominent loungy quality of Tony Crow’s piano, and the static-laced electronic interludes that stitch the songs together. Nothing quite matches the rolling rhythms of “The New Cobweb Summer” or “Flub,” the fantastic closer for the 2002 tour CD, but Damaged is a powerful record and has provided the end-of-the-evening soundtrack for a good portion of my summer. Its songs propel you from sociability to introspection without making your head hurt. They lull you — not put you — to sleep.

“Damaged” is such an apt description for the characters Wagner creates that it seems impossible it hasn’t been used as an album title already. This is an album in part about aging: “I remember once when you did acid as a kid,” Wagner sings on “Beers before the Barbican”: “There was a moment when you seemed so in control.” (A steel guitar accents the wistful sentiment, as if to remind you this is his version of a country song.) So many of Lambchop’s songs fit this formula, a moment of consciousness, maybe years later, clarity about something that seemed clear to you before, a recognition that no one is ever as in control as you imagine in the moment. Some of these moments are framed as regrets, others as mere observations. If “Damaged” is the operative condition for our lives, Wagner suggests, it’s precisely what makes us available — and affordable. Like objects in a thrift store (the album’s opening track, “Paperback Bible,” in fact refers to a Tennessee public radio swap meet, with listeners phoning in to buy or sell dogs, prom dresses, TV parts, a handgun) we have hidden histories and the potential to unfold new meanings in new contexts, depending on who’s calling. We have momentary needs (the song opens with a caller looking for a “good used paperback bible”) that dominate our lives but will almost certainly pass (the same caller phones in to sell the bible in the end).

Wagner seizes on such transitory moments, or stands there watching helpless while they pass him by. Buying and selling used goods provides an apt metaphor for relationships as much as anything else. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been together, he suggests, you’re not entirely ready to be in the relationship: “I am willing to bear my part,” he concludes “Prepared [2]”: “I’ve been hasty I’ve been surprised / And for this I’m only partially prepared.” On one of the album’s standouts, “A Day Without Glasses” (the title simultaneously suggests clarity and cloudy vision), he turns such hesitations and uncertainties into one of his most tender love songs:

There are things I want to tell you
But sometimes I get confused
Still I try to make a mental note of this

But tonight we’ll have this whole place to ourselves
And tomorrow will [we’ll?] not have the chance to speak
Come closer now
So these words lay soft and low in your ear:
I’ve never had a moment of regret.

These moments set Wagner apart from songwriters like Leonard Cohen or Vic Chesnutt, both of whom he resembles. Wagner’s narrators can be “Moody Fucker[s],” as the title to one of his best songs puts it. They often have lousy days (the entire song “I Would Have Waited Here All Day” is about precisely that). But something keeps him hanging on, and it’s usually a battered, weather-worn, damaged relationship: “I do not doubt we will wait it out. / I would have waited here all day.”

The album’s final track, “The Decline of Country and Western Civilization,” provides the darkest moment of despair, expanding the notion of damaged relationships to include larger contexts: the band’s career, Southern culture, perhaps even America’s foreign relations. The song begins and ends with what sounds like a cigarette lighter flicking, followed by kindling taking flame. “Well I hate Nathan Bedford Forrest / He’s the featured artist in the devil’s chorus,” Wagner opens, his baritone sounding like Neil Diamond’s darker twin. The lines invoke the Confederate officer and native Tennesseean who became an early KKK leader. It’s no mistake that the song begins as a rejoinder: Wagner takes on disgruntled fans (“You lost your friends when you quit smoking” can be read as a reference to How I Quit Smoking) and critics (he calls out a particular influential online magazine that’s not been so kind to the band in recent years, as well as the kinds of bands that site favors: “You see your Pitchfork [indie]-rock saviors / And I’m sorry I still prefer Jim Nabors”). He harrangues governmental spin-doctors, televangelists, his own deteriorating body. It’s perhaps the most devastating song Wagner has ever written. “Damn they’re looking ugly to me,” he complains over and over, about everything — until the very last line offers that Wagnerian moment of redemption: “But you’re good looking.”

he really does look like my grandfather

So’s Kurt, in his way that reminds me of my grandpa, sitting out front of his mobile home. So’s Lambchop, that sprawling mess of a band. Never been looking — or sounding — finer. At the end of “All Smiles and Mariachi,” that song that’s haunted me for going on ten years, the narrator finds that his “confidence is returning.” So much so, that he stops for donuts on the way home. Now that’s what I’m talking about. Keep the damage coming, baby. How else would you know you’re alive?

13 responses to “Summer soundtracks, part three: End of the evening”

  1. Mark says:

    This was a great little article on one of my absolute favorite bands. It’s funny that at the Prospect Park show I didn’t really appreciate them yet, so though it was good background music for drinking and smoking, it didn’t speak to me at all (until the Buzzcocks cover at the end).

    Then, in the past few years, I’ve waited patiently for them to come around to the west coast. I emailed them and asked after noticing a smattering of dates on the east coast and around Nashville, but no dice. So I was elated to see on their website a few weeks back that they’re finally coming out to Portland at the end of this month.

    Of course, the hardest part of seeing Lambchop live is finding someone to go with me that’s actually heard of them. I’m looking forward to a great show.

  2. bryan says:

    Hey Mark — Thanks for reading & for such nice words. I’m currently trying to figure out how I’m going to make the Lambchop show at Bowery later this month when I already had tickets that night to the season opener for the American Chamber Society at Lincoln Center, which has an amazing 20th-century lineup this fall. Maybe if they go on late? Otherwise I may have to roadtrip to Philly …

    I had already over-indulged in my little story about “All Smiles and Mariachi,” so I wound up leaving out the kicker: One night I was sitting down at Fresh Salt when I looked up to the top section of the bar and there were Kurt and Mary, hanging out with one of the other regulars. (Turns out they’re old friends.) So I sent back the message that the “All Smiles” guy was at the bar and had a bone to pick with them. We chatted cordially on the sidewalk. I somehow doubt I’ll ever get to hear them play that damned song. Maybe I’ll start lobbying for a cover of the Bee Gees’ “Fanny (Be Tender With My Love),” which would fit in with the side of Lambchop that sometimes covers Mayfield and others, with Kurt in a Prince-esque falsetto.

    I know what you mean about the need to recruit others: I thought Dave would be a sure convert, but he initially said Is A Woman made him want to slit his wrists one night while doing the dishes, it was so gentle. And Bacon and Stella (if I have my story right) went to the show without having heard them first on record and weren’t prepared for such a large number of people making such sleepy music. After that I came up with a Lambchop primer to distribute to new potential converts. (“What do you know about Lambchop? Do you want to know more?”)

    Congrats on your upcoming wedding too — I wish I could make it.

  3. bryan says:

    oh — I should add that Dave eventually came around for the most part. How could he not, when I bought him What Another Man Spills, the album with the McNew songs on it? Plus you know what a sucker he is for steel guitar. And other arrangements.

  4. Mark says:

    Mandy tells me I have a thing for moody sounding guys with monotone voices, which sounds about right.

    But then, she has a Barry Manilow fetish.

    And thanks for the congrats, just about a week and a half away. I’m still pondering which Lambchop song to play for our first dance .

  5. hmm. well, you know which one’s my favorite. a good slow dancer, too. “superstar in france” (one of the east river pipe covers) is always a nice one as well. You’re dancing on the beach in Oregon? Have you turned into a full-blown hippie out there?

  6. farrell says:

    oh how I wish you would roadtrip to philly to see this tour. but i looked at those tourdates and didn’t see a philly show. i’d love to see them with you (especially since i’ve been drunk with the drummer at a wedding in texas). if they’re actually stopping here, please let me know so i can get some tickets. i liked this post–especially since it’s forced me to finally go get “is a woman” and figure out what all the excitement is still about. and forced me to go buy some long-overdue scotch. thanks.

  7. JaneAnne says:

    Hey Mark–I’ll go with you, if you go with me to see the (in a way) triumphant return of Storm and the Balls.

  8. Stella says:

    I don’t know about Bacon, but I swear Stella has never been to see Lambchop, although I was at Fresh Salt one night/that night with you when they came in. Maybe Dave can enlighten?

  9. bryan says:

    Hmm. I distinctly remember Bacon recounting a bad Lambchop experience. Maybe he was just with Dave. I think it would have been different if he had known what he was in for before he went to see them.

  10. Dave says:

    I think it was me, Bacon, and Bacon’s lady friend, although I don’t remember for sure. I’d listened to their album and still didn’t really like the show. But I’m excited to see them this time around.

  11. hey barber. we both have tickets to lincoln center that night. so you better be invested in as quick a ride downtown as possible.

  12. […] Dave B, “Not afraid (but the ass-beating shall remain strictly metaphorical, thank you very much)” Dave B, “One way of looking at a Judd” Trixie Honeycups, “Radiohead at Tower Theater, Philadelphia” Bryan Waterman, “Summer Soundtracks” (Parts 1, 2, and 3) […]