Lambchop - Mr. M
released 20 February 2012 on City Slang
Lambchop have now been a going concern for quarter of a century. Therefore, it would seem ridiculous that they’d find themselves in the position of having to follow up a career-best album. Yet, here we are. Four years after releasing OH (Ohio), a record where Nashville’s finest perfected their timeless blend of whiskey-drenched alt. country, smoky bar-room jazz and plaintive, delicate soul, Lambchop return with Mr. M, and it’s business as usual.
Mr. M does not represent a step forward for Lambchop. In fact, if anything, it’s a step backwards. Whereas OH (Ohio) had shifts in dynamic, mood and tempo (albeit subtle ones), Mr. M seems content to tread water in chugging, medium tempos.
However, this does not mean Mr. M is a bad record. Since taking steps away from traditional country tropes (a trend they continue here), they’ve become a band who do “gorgeous” better than probably anybody else. Sumptuous strings swoop and soar, Kurt Wagner’s brittle voice cracks yet never strains, drums are lightly brushed, and the supporting cast of pianos and guitars are used sparingly and to great effect.
There’s little to report as far as individual tracks go. Even if it can sometimes veer towards what lazy people like to term “coffee table music”, Mr. M works better as a whole when setting and maintaining a mood. Actually, the main surprises can be found in the opening ten minutes of the record: the fifth word of the entire album is “fuck”, which can’t help but sound incongruous, and the odd, slightly-delayed double-tracking of vocals in 2B2 is disorienting and awkward. After that, Lambchop are your comforting pilots on a ride that’s anything but bumpy.
The main issue with Mr. M is that, while it’s beautiful on the surface, it doesn’t really go anywhere, and the best part of an hour of careful introspection with little to sink your teeth into is likely to test even the most patient. Tracks with female vocals in the mix, like the flute-adorned, album highlight Gar, offer an extra dimension, but it’s largely non-descript.
This adds to the feeling that Mr. M is an album made entirely of album tracks. There’s no National Talk Like A Pirate Day, no Up With People, nothing to snap you out of the pleasant somnambulant reverie Lambchop have created. A couple of hooks or catchy melodies, a little jeopardy, the kind of emotion that led to the guitar attack before the chorus of Radiohead’s Creep could transform this record. As it is, Lambchop are staid in their musical dotage, and presumably there’s no incentive for them to rip up the rule book and set their phasers to “avant-garde”.
That’s not to say Lambchop need to make an experimental record to be relevant again; criticising Mr. M for not being Trout Mask Replica is like saying you don’t like tennis because you prefer the taste of ice cream. However, the relative disappointment of Mr. M does suggest that Lambchop have become a little too comfortable. Hopefully the future does bring brighter things, otherwise we could be witnessing the beginning of the end for one of the most consistent and under-valued bands of the past two decades.