Beyond the myriad strains of so-called alt-country—from figureheads Wilco to numerous Will Oldham incarnations to unfortunately named variants like twangcore and cowpunk—lie even thornier mutants of roots music, bands that resist a No Depression tag despite an evident weakness for strum and twang. Lambchop and the Handsome Family, who both make local appearances this week backing new albums, are country misfits who may appeal most of all to indie-rockers. Or more precisely, to indie-mopers, who’ll respond to the time-honored combo of melody and misery and the narrative tricks of smarty-pants lyricists (Kurt Wagner and Rennie Sparks respectively)—and maybe even to the conceptual appeal of historically minded music that’s wedded to modern sentiment and thrives on the incongruity without misdiagnosing it as irony. Both bands are, in theory, shtick-reliant but, in practice, singular and single-minded enough for it not to matter.
A sprawling Nashville collective (17 this time out, plus strings and choir) fronted by singer-songwriter-guitarist and improbable soul man Kurt Wagner (who still has a day job laying hardwood floors), Lambchop have been splitting the difference—and narrowing the gap—between turn-of-the-’70s orchestral country and Stax/Volt for nearly a decade now. The albums have grown progressively more lustrous, the trademark sound thickening and opening out into a kind of rootsy ambient wash. The sad, swoony languor reached a lovely dead end on 1998’s What Another Man Spills—perhaps a little too soothing in its immaculate melancholy, often susceptible to the curious alchemy by which pedal steel plus Stax horns equals something perilously close to kitsch.
Lambchop’s new album, their fifth, calmly negotiates the impasse. Despite inching further into Bacharach terrain, it’s looser, more intricate, and remarkable in its detail (microshifts in temperament register with startling clarity). For some reason, it’s called Nixon. The cover art appropriates one of those tacky, old, preframed supermarket paintings in which a boy and a girl are throwing stones into a pond (there’s a mill house in the background); in huge white letters, the word NIXON has been superimposed on the rippling water surface. The liner notes feature a suggested Nixon reading list. Less a concept album than a case study of Wagner’s free-associative thought patterns, Nixon is about Tricky Dick only insofar as it has an affinity to the early ’70s.
But not necessarily in a depressing way. The closest Lambchop had previously come to a feel-good number was something called “Your Fucking Sunny Day.” The new album’s centerpiece, “Up With People,” draws inspiration from the Nixon-era traveling choir, and from that period signifier of creepy, scrubbed wholesomeness, conjures a mood of sheer euphoria, with trumpet flourishes, hand claps, and gospel testifying. Trying to make out the words is typically disorienting—what I could have sworn was a weirdly pretentious gay-activist manifesto (“Come out for Genet”) is in fact a (no less bizarre) breeding mantra (“Come on progeny”). Wagner is, to say the least, an enigmatic writer, fond of tenuously connected asides and abstractions (the stardust-sprinkled opener “The Old Gold Shoe”). His favorite strategy is juxtaposition, and it’s no wonder so many Lambchop songs suggest aural approximations of widescreen montage. His sonorous baritone or sandpaper-falsetto whispers seem like a conspiratorial voice-over—in the press kit, he actually describes the majestic “Nashville Parent” in terms of cuts, dissolves, and pans.
While Wagner is an unselfconscious retroist, who doesn’t feel the need to joke about his nostalgia or package it as homage, Brett and Rennie Sparks of Chicago’s Handsome Family do both, with equal conviction. Founded on a precarious equilibrium, their songs are always on the verge of collapse—though into what it’s not exactly clear. Brett has a rumbling, poker-faced delivery that’s made for wife Rennie’s black-comic Gothic narratives. There’s a distinct Smithsonian Folkways feel to the enterprise, but while the murder-ballad quotient is up there, Rennie will write about anything that’s sufficiently dark, from the universal allure of suicide to her husband’s time in a mental institution. “Here in the bipolar ward, if you shower you get a gold star,” Brett sang in the most harrowing track on 1998’s Through the Trees. “But I’m not going far till the Haldol kicks in.”
The Handsomes lost their drummer after their second album, Milk and Scissors, and have since been getting by nicely with a drum machine; their living room still doubles as recording studio (Pulsar Dave Trumfio helps mix their records). The new In the Air is their most melodic and focused work to date, its mythic story-songs deepening the Sparks’ longtime fixation with nature at its most cruel—a girl carried off by crows, black ants crawling on a corpse. “Lie Down,” the most memorable track, is about a clamdigger lured to his death by the sea, but seems to be about nothing so much as the essential appeal of the Handsome Family: “Lie down, lie down in the dark rolling sea. When you get to the bottom we’ll kiss you to sleep.”
Lambchop play Maxwell’s February 27 and open for Yo La Tengo at Town Hall February 29.
The Handsome Family play Maxwell’s February 27 and Mercury Lounge February 26.