Lambchop – FLOTUS
Out now on City Slang
Review by David Hemingway
It is not, it must be said, business as usual, for Nashville’s self-described “most fucked up country band”.
FLOTUS is reportedly an acronym for “For Love Often Turns Us Still” but given frontman/constant Kurt Wagner’s political inclinations, is presumably also intended to allude to the “First Lady of the United States”. The album was teased earlier this year by “The Hustle”, a lengthy and majestic adventure/statement of intent seemingly inspired by Krautrock and minimal electronic music. Based on a track by collaborator Ryan Norris aka Coupler (who has claimed he was channelling the influence of Italo-Disco, Fela Kuti and Harold Budd), “The Hustle” eschews vocals for the first five of its eighteen minutes until Wagner proclaims “I don’t want to leave you ever/And that’s a long, long time.” Electronic pulses are decorated with warm reeds and horns, as the song builds to Wagner’s exhortations to dance.
Wagner has described the song as reportage from a Quaker wedding party where those present indulged in a synchronised dance step he hadn’t seen before. “I asked my wife what dance it was and she told me it was the Hustle,” Wagner has said, “She suggested I join them.” Apparently, he declined to do so.
Lambchop and/or Wagner have frequently thrown curve balls – think the outré Superchunk/Unrest collaboration “Two Kittens Don’t Make A Puppy”, the evangelical house Wagner guested on with X-Press II, their delightful celebrations of Curtis Mayfield, even their enthusiasm to having “Up With People” remodelled by beatific sound-designers Zero 7. FLOTUS though, seems the most sustained re-imagining of what the sometime “alt-country” band fronted by “a grump, muttering to him-self” might sound like.
Wagner has described FLOTUS as an attempt to write an album that his wife (Mary Mancini, Chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party and an aspiring state senate) or even his neighbours might want to listen to. The songwriter has reported being influenced by contemporary R&B, soul and hip-hop – sounds he would hear drifting from his neighbour’s house (or more specifically, a broken-down red Firebird parked up on their shared drive), when he was sat on the porch. Kendrick Lamar and Shabazz Palaces have been specifically name-checked as inspirations and Wagner’s new-found fondness for Auto-Tune/vocal-processing as a deliberate artistic statement (rather than a deception, to hide wayward singing) suggests his neighbours were probably blasting Kanye West. Intriguingly, Wagner appears to be exploring similar pathways to Justin Vernon on Bon Iver’s “22, A Million” or, even more closely, the same band’s Sean Carey’s more discreet solo experiments. With repeated play, I’m struck by how skilfully measured Lambchop’s take on these musics seems. It’s not all change, in Wagner’s world, however. Standout (opening) track “In Care of 8675309” is littered with references to dogs – he rhymes “paper cup” with “just a pup”. On the album’s title track, meanwhile, Wagner dolefully observes “You were strong once and now you tend to fall down.” Not unusually for Lambchop, unpicking lyrics/narratives will require dedication though now this seems a forced issue rather than a matter of enunciation.
Some resistance to this change might be understandable: I’ve often conceived a good Lambchop album as akin to a favoured drinking buddy but, though it’s available in a box set packaged with two high quality bottles of wine, FLOTUS seems to be an album to experience differently. It’s worth persevering, however. While I might concur with Mancini’s assessment that she actually liked her husband’s original voice, as it was, all along – FLOTUS is, nevertheless, masterful, nuanced and sophisticated and is likely one of the most special albums of the year.