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Lambchop are weirdos. Which means that theoretically, they should be flourishing right now: indie-rock is in the midst of a brief, fervent patch of weirdo adoration. But the long-running Nashville institution, which releases its 11th album Mr. M this week, handily demonstrates the profound gap separating the brightly colored weirdness that draws delighted, flocking crowds (tUnE-YarDs, Dirty Projectors) from the kind that clears rooms. The band, which has been making records since William Jefferson Clinton’s first term, has never once cracked open the door to the outside world any wider than allows for the peering of one bloodshot eye, and ringleader Kurt Wagner has expressed only marginal awareness of whatever is going on around them. They are proudly impervious to popularity.
Which, of course, is a precious commodity anywhere in the world you find it. And Lambchop is just that: the kind of vanishingly rare band allowed to exist over several geologic eras of pop-culture time, pursuing a singular, demented muse. Lambchop is an island, removed from the squalor of everyday world, so terrifically inscrutable that you even start looking for significance in their name: not pork chop, but lamb chop. Surely that must mean something?
Mr. M is, at once, one of the band’s most open-hearted and acidic records. It opens with a flourish of strings that invoke memories of Frank Sinatra’s great, gloomy indigo-jazz records with string arranger Nelson Riddle. The clothes are old ones, slightly threadbare, and they are ones Lambchop have a winking relationship with, dating back at least to 2001’s Nixon. You can smell the used-record-sleeve on them. And so, apparently, can Wagner, something he’s quick to draw your attention to. When he enters the song, he appears to be both commenting ironically on its motion and somehow directing its action: “Grandpa’s coughing in the kitchen/ But the strings sound good/ Maybe add some flutes/ And how do get the cups out from over there?”
Wagner’s voice is the center to Lambchop’s fascinating, ornery riddle. By this point, he has acquired the intelligent stink of a veteran character actor, able to summon an entire worldview in a single squint. His singing voice is wildly variable, and it contains a lot of peculiar notes: throaty and possibly lovely, it emerges in little trembling honks, as it if were passing through a goose’s throat. He sounds a little choked up, a man giving a speech at his daughter’s wedding day. Conversational, a man looking you evenly in the eye and informing you that you are a prick. A man mocking emotion, a man overcome with it: he might be either.
It helps that his way with phrasing is like a fountain pen nib piercing beneath your skin: “We took the Christmas lights/ Off the front porch/ On February 31st,” goes the opening salvo of “2B2,” an image so vivid, ambiguous, and haunting that it to hear it once is to have it burned instantly into memory. He often starts out songs like he’s resuming a particularly intense and beery philosophical conversation exactly where he left it: “God made us rational,” goes the opening line of “Mr. Met.” The song is made up of these peculiar axioms: “Fear makes us critical/ knowledge is difficult.” Sometimes, the word at the end of the phrase feels like a mistake, or like the result of some smart-phone auto-correct mishap: “Sleep makes you possible,” he sings. Wait: possible?
The music seems to talk back at Wagner, like characters in an old play. The band often undermines Wagner’s procession of parched air quotes with a flood of emotion: The wine-dark cello that blooms out of the center of “Mr. Met” is just one of many moments where the music constricts your throat. There are moments, likewise, when the instruments feel like the hum of Wagner’s own consciousness. “Gone Tomorrow” drifts away on a long, wordless coda, with the bass repeating a single figure while the song sits patiently in place. It’s not quite an exploration, nor is it a holding pattern. It’s a single, preserved thought, held in the mind longer than normal just for the savor of it.
Wagner and his band are such old dancing partners by now that they don’t so much finish each other’s sentences as anticipate them entirely. On Mr. M., you can hear the scratch and whisper of a band that has become telepathically tight: the album is miked so closely that the dust motes swirling in the mix become audible. You can hear a piece of art talking back to itself. Yes, Lambchop are a weird band. But they are the kind of weird that encourages lifelong study. And Mr. M is a rare album: one where you lean in and listen, because you want to learn something.