Nashville’s Lambchop have been flouting Music Row protocol for so long that their anti-formula has become a formula. There’s no mistaking OH (Ohio), the band’s 10th full-length, as anything but the work of frontman Kurt Wagner and his rotating crew of assistants: Right at the top, in opener “Ohio,” he’s mumbling semi-coherently about how green doesn’t matter when you’re blue over a gorgeous country-soul groove embroidered with lush keys and sparkling horns—and that’s pretty much how it goes for the next 49 minutes. (“Popeye” does sport an unexpected disco-shoegaze coda, but it’s over before you know it.) Wagner told Billboard recently that he wrote these 11 tunes with the idea of eventually touring them on his own; he’s in the midst of a solo jaunt even as we speak. Yet that backstory leads you to anticipate a stripped-down take on Lambchop’s countrypolitan gloss, which OH (Ohio) thankfully fails to deliver. After all, with a frontman spouting absurdist tone poetry in a monotone that Randy Newman might consider lazy, this band of rhinestone cowboys isn’t really the “unplugged” type. Like Al Gore, without an environment to tend to, they haven’t much to offer.
On his third long-player since emerging four years ago from the New England wilderness, folk-soul lumberjack Ray LaMontagne breaks from his own proven formula, goosing his delicately ragged croon with bright r&b horns (“You Are the Best Thing”), spaghetti-western whistles (“Meg White”), and Black Crowes–style Southern-rock guitars (“Henry Nearly Killed Me [It’s a Shame]”). Whereas, in the past, longtime producer Ethan Johns kept the sonic clutter to a minimum in order to spotlight LaMontagne’s remarkable vocals—Ray is somebody you wouldn’t mind seeing with only an acoustic for accompaniment—here the pair construct an in-studio ecosystem nearly as elaborate as Lambchop’s. Even the quiet ones, like the closing title track, feature dramatic chamber-goth string arrangements and twinkly analog-keyboard bits. Yet thanks to sturdy songwriting—as usual, dude’s ditties feel about as old as dirt—the added luster doesn’t entirely conceal the rawness within, which results in a juicy emotional tension. Remember Crocodile Dundee? It’s kind of like that.
Kurt Wagner plays Joe’s Pub October 8. Ray LaMontagne plays Radio City Music Hall October 11.