LAMBCHOP What Another Man Spills (City Slang)

This is terrific. Lambchop are yet another fabulous new country band (see also Lullaby For The Working Class, Will Oldham and his alumni) with a membership numbering between nine and fourteen. They hail from Nashville, naturally ("visit the country music hall of fame in nashville, tn" advises the booklet), and "What Another Man Spills" is their third album.

Their majesty centres around the songwriting gifts of main man Kurt Wagner, who assembles wry, unsentimental words from the minutiae of everyday life, songs inspired by taking his dogs for a walk, deciding whether or not to go for that one last drink, movies not rented, bad job experiences...sensations that maybe we’ve all experienced in one way or another, but haven’t found a name for yet. These quiet revelations then get wound around the music Lambchop make, a slow-moving concoction of steel and acoustic guitars, strings and brass. It’s an unhurried, undemonstrative music that gives you time to savour Wagner’s words and their dry delivery (think Will Oldham transposed to a lower register). And as some mark of the esteem in which they are held by their peers, "What Another Man Spills" also features a couple of songs donated by East River Pipe’s Fred Cornog and James McNew of Yo La Tengo, as well as sleeve artwork by friend-of-R.E.M. Vic Chesnutt.

The other side of Lambchop is that of a sweaty soul revue band...well, not quite, but as soul has been entwined deep in the roots of country rock since the movement’s birth (The Byrds did William Bell’s "You Don’t Miss Your Water" on "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo", The Flying Burrito Brothers covered "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" on their classic "The Guilded Palace Of Sin") it’s less than a total surprise to find covers of Curtis Mayfield’s "Give Me Your Love" and Frederick Knight’s "Lonely" (last seen round these parts in the company of Black Grape), both executed with as much sass as a Nashville nonet can muster (which is more than you’d probably imagine).

All this isn’t to suggest that "What Another Man Spills" is a stylistic mess, however: all the different influences and genres coexist together perfectly - you’ll hear delicate traces of soul, funk, country or whatever, rather than artificial flavouring and colour by the bucketload. The closest comparison I feel able to make is that of a down home Tindersticks, and even that fails to touch on the subtle wash of human emotion Kurt Wagner and his band bring to these songs. The only disappointment is the closing "Theme From The Neil Miller Song", a raucous rave-up presumably included to show that they’re not miserable all the time. Which is great for them, but rather spoils the illusion of sensitive, melancholy young Nashville souls for me. Nevertheless, "What Another Man Spills" is already one of my fave albums of the year.

LAMBCHOP Nixon (City Slang)

Dim the lights, pull up a chair and relax, because this is the big one. Kurt Wagner, wooden floor layer by day, singer, songwriter and guitarist with Nashville country-soul orchestra Lambchop by night, had been quoted as saying that the follow-up to 1998's gentle, observational gem "What Another Man Spills" would push the band to their creative limit, and would be embellished with lush string arrangements and state-of-the-art production trickery. And here it is: ten songs, a suggesting reading list for those interested in learning more about its titular subject, a cover painting showing children throwing stones at a millhouse, in front of which stands the word "Nixon" in huge, stoic white lettering, seventeen musicians (one of whom is credited with playing open end wrenches and a lacquer thinner can), a string section, a choir. Some have claimed "Nixon" as the most elaborate independently released album ever, and with due deference to My Bloody Valentine and the £250,000 it cost them to distort "Loveless" into shape they may well be right.

For the first few plays "Nixon" sounds like nothing more than the delicate, droll tracery of "What Another Man Spills" with bells on; it looks and feels immaculate, but there's a huge vacuum at the core where the wondeful songwriting should be. Give it time, and slowly but surely the greatness of this album will creep gently up on you, and it will be welded into your chosen playback device. Wagner's witty, pithy observations of and comments on the drudgery of everyday life surely mark him as one of the most utterly humane and compassionate writers working in popular music today; Mick Head might be almost there, but the subject matter of many of his songs - chiefly the pain of existing in the grip of addiction - saps them of the universality that Wagner's work possesses in spades. And the music that supports his words must represent the ultimate exposition of his long-vaunted ambition to synthesise country and soul music into something greater than the considerable sum of its parts. It's not a million miles away from the kind of cosmic American music Mercury Rev buttered warmly over "Deserter's Songs", but given a blue-collar, down home Southern spin, with hardly a trace of the Rev's other-worldly psychedelics.

Everything on "Nixon" is great, but there are a handful of moments that push beyond, ensuring its place as one of the finest, most ambitious works of the year/decade/century/insert your preferred time period here. "Up With People" is a finger-popping, hand-clapping, gospel choir-assisted ode to the joys of procreation, the happiest song in Lambchop's canon by a country mile, from its chorus of "We are screwing up our lives today" to the spine-tingling way the choir punch in with the line "C'mon progeny". The sublime "Nashville Parent" follows it, a fractured tale of dysfunction set to a melody as mellow as a Werther's Original. Even the atypical moments that close the collection - the jarring feedback drones and doomy piano of resuscitated b-side "The Petrified Florist" and the traditional Nick Cave-territory suicide tale "The Butcher Boy", which ends two versus before the lyrics printed in the booklet - entwine seamlessly into the album's overall conceptless concept.

The music press have not been reticent in heaping praise on "Nixon", and for once they are entirely correct. Wyndham, City Slang's PR guy, has said that he's proud to work for a record company that's associated with this album. Sooner or later you might be just as enthusiastic about welcoming "Nixon" into your life.

LAMBCHOP Is A Woman (City Slang/Virgin)

Over the course of their last five albums Lambchop's stock has risen to the extent that Kurt Wagner felt sufficiently confident in his new career to give up his day job as a floor sander, and posited their last effort, "Nixon", as the most lavishly produced independent album in the world ever. At a time when Lambchop seem poised to deliver their defining statement, and with pre-release rumours suggesting the band are happier with this latest than any of their previous albums, "Is A Woman" seems to document a group in retreat.

It opens promisingly enough, with "The Daily Growl" and "The New Cobweb Summer", but a feeling of ennui swiftly sets in. The songs don't seem to have the melodic and lyrical grip of old, sounding like pale, mid-paced variations of each other. (One of the more individual moments, "I Can Hardly Spell My Name", originally surfaced in 1995 on a US-only 7" shared with Cyod.) The elaborate string and choir arrangements that propelled "Nixon" to even greater heights than its predecessors are as long gone as Wagner's falsetto Curtis Mayfield tributes. In their absence the band seem to have chosen to focus on their core competencies, their essential Lambchopness, but the diffuse arrangements and almost melodies make "Is A Woman" sound more like a Kurt Wagner solo album than a team effort, bringing to mind Lullaby For The Working Class' similarly unhappy third long-player, "Song". You're left grasping for something/anything that can be construed as a redeeming feature, for example "The Old Matchbook Trick" and its tales of bussing through a Barcelona sunrise with Embrace's road crew, or the reggae lilt that spices the closing pages of the title track, which sounds far more inviting than it may read.

But even as I type all this negativity, I can't entirely discount the feeling that after another n plays I'll be heralding "Is A Woman" as an Americana landmark. Perhaps its charms are too subtle to be given up so easily. Then again, accompanying "Is A Woman" is a 3 track CD, chortlingly entitled "Is A Bonus", featuring versions of The Sisters Of Mercy's "This Corrosion", The Rolling Stones' "Backstreet Girl" (which first saw the light of day on a Stones-themed Uncut cover disc) and, uh, Lambchop's "Uti", which for sustained musical enjoyment tramples over the achievements of its parent, their brooding, swampy take on "This Corrosion" especially.

LAMBCHOP Awcmonnoyoucmon (City Slang/Labels)

Well, that's what it's called on the spine, anyway: in this country, Lambchop's latest opus is an indivisible double set, whilst in America it's available as the separate albums "Awcmon" and "Noyoucmon" (presumably). The product of some fevered songwriting activity on the part of principal Kurt Wagner, "Awcmonnoyoucmon" initially, at least, finds the 14-piece ensemble returning to the balmy sonic lushness of their career-besting "Nixon", after traversing the barren lowlands on their undermelodic last outing "Is A Woman".

"Being Tyler" is an opening instrumental flourish midway between Nick Drake's "Introduction" and some kind of Earth, Wind & Fire boogie wonderland…well, not exactly halfway, perhaps, but there's certainly more than a suggestion of gently swaying bodies about it. "Four Pounds In Two Days" marks the first appearance of Wagner's confidential, conversational vocal style, more ragged and raised than it has been in recent memory. There's more gorgeous melody filling every space during "Steve McQueen", the exquisite arrangements of The Nashville String Arrangement bearing the song aloft. But, after successive, blissfully enjoyable listens, it's around this point that the suspicion suggests itself that these songs are, well, a bit slender, and that behind all this luscious window dressing the cupboard is bare.

As another delightful, frothy instrumental ("The Lone Official") bubbles past perhaps the listener might begin to reflect on just why "Awcmonnoyoucmon" is the first Lambchop album since 1998's excellent "What Another Man Spills" to be packaged without printed lyrics, and consider whether, like the latest works by Coldplay and Doves, it's the kind of record that dazzles and seduces at first before revealing itself to be empty and hollow.

"Nothing But A Blur From A Bullet Train" temporarily allays those fears, a gorgeous touch of "Lost In Translation" otherness - and I can't help but enjoy any song that makes use of the word 'trundled' in its lyric - it sounds immaculate yet also slightly underdeveloped, and it's now that you might consider just what kind of album the band could have constructed had they concentrated on a dozen of these vignettes and really worked on them. The dizzying Disneyesque string flourish that opens "Each Time I Bring It Up It Seems To Bring You Down" soon gives way to a rather more typically pedestrian piece - lovely, yet maybe also a little overfamiliar, although the barely perceptible wobble with which Wagner invites "Take the best of me and throw it to the dogs" is a tiny, cherishable moment.

"Timothy B. Schmidt", a tribute to the Poco and Eagles member whose bands' work made much of what Lambchop do possible and plausible, is affable wordless filler, something you'd be delighted to discover as a b-side, but which, one-third of the way through a major statement like this, finds its impact diminished. The sardonic "Women Help To Create The Kind Of Men They Despise" aims for Oscar Wilde but has to be satisfied with Stephin Merritt, but at least demonstrates an incompletely realised ambition. "I Haven’t Heard A Word I've Said" is a deceptively spiky, spidery thing that, like many of these songs, is in grave danger of being outclevered by its title, and although "Action Figure" is almost definitive Lambchop, down to ribticklers such as "I've swatted flies all afternoon/I've swallowed beer like a cartoon", it still falls within the shadow cast by the magnificent "Nixon".

Ostensibly beginning the "Noyoucmon" half of proceedings, "Sunrise" is a glorious, uplifting, string-soaked instrumental, blessed with golden pools of pedal steel…but hang on, haven’t we been here before quite recently? "Low Ambition" offers something slightly different, sinister and snaking with distant feedback and distortion, it's, with a benevolent leap of faith and imagination, almost like the kind of incidental blaxploitation soundtrack pieces Isaac or Curtis created in their pomp. "Nothing Adventurous Please" cranks things up even closer to 11, sounding like R.E.M. at their most furious…well, as furious as they get these days, at least. It’s rather harder to justify "Shang A Dang Dang" as anything other than filler, perhaps another guilty reason for the lack of lyric sheets given that there's little more to it than seemingly endless repetition of the title.

"About My Lighter" finds the band caring and sharing again, a jaunty thing with words and a story, although "Jan. 24" is, sigh, another instrumental, upbeat and jolly but unnervingly suggestive of a chase sequence in a caper movie, not quite fitting with the 'Chop's trail of sober invention. The samba detour "The Gusher" is another, rather more welcome, surprise, but maybe that's the contradiction at the heart of "Awcmonnoyoucmon"…well, apart from the way it can't decide whether it's a pair of Siamese twins or not. Damned if they stick rigidly to the effective template that carved such great moments in Lambchop history as "What Another Man Spills" and "Nixon", and damned if they don't, unfortunately the band don’t assist their case greatly by bulking this double album out with material that really could have done with a little longer to percolate. Despite all my finicky criticism it's still the finest album 2004 has yet produced, but it would be a sad indictment of popular music if it retains that title nine months hence.

LAMBCHOP / CORTNEY TIDWELL Manchester Cathedral 6 March 2012 

Cortney Tidwell is accompanied by a four-piece band, and so unaccustomed am I to seeing a support artist not reduced to strumming along on her own acoustic guitar for melodic company I wonder whether the gentlemen in question have been purloined from Lambchop’s ranks. Cortney herself has the appearance of Tracy Ullman possessed by the spirit of Stevie Nicks in full Welsh witch mode. Musically she’s all over the shop, sometimes sounding like an Americana Radiohead, sometimes just two turntables away from trip-hop. Vocally, Janis Joplin and Beth Gibbons are in there too at times. It’s only on her final song that she really seems to perform, though, prowling the very front of the stage and fixing the audience with her stare in ways that inevitably obliterate all memories of what precedes it.

When Lambchop take to the stage my earlier suspicions are confirmed, the band’s current live lineup including Cortney and band alongside stalwarts Tony Crow and Kurt Wagner. Assembled in as close to a semi-circle as the shallow stage permits (more “in the nave” than “in the round”) there’s neither ego nor theatricality, with Wagner calmly leading proceedings from his position on the far right of the stage.

They proceed to amble through much of three-week-old new album “Mr. M”. At one point Wagner apologises for testing us with so much unfamiliar material before promising more of the same. Without the benefit of acquaintance, hearing much of it for only the second time, I can say that the band’s performance is effortless without being slick, but the invariant nature of the songs kinda makes it a bit of a trudge at times.

Tony breaks things up a little with a couple of comedy skits, and, in what is claimed to be a traditional initiation ritual for new band members, their pedal steelist is made to sing The Smiths’ “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” whilst brandishing a bunch of daffodils.  

Eventually we’re treated to some older material, including “My Blue Wave”, “Soaky In The Pooper” and a somewhat pedestrian (but welcome, of course) “Up With People”, slightly diminished by what sounded to me like (but almost certainly wasn’t) clumping, school concert band-style drumming.

All possible criticism of the evening is overturned, though, by the closing number, a hellfire gospel invigoration of the set’s opener that interpolates Taking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime” and the sight of Wagner breakdancing. (I later learn this astonishing tune is a collaboration between Kurt and X-Press 2 entitled “Give It”).  More drama like that and the evening could have been genuinely great rather than solidly good.