Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Playlist: Lambchop

Spectrum Culture ( is running a feature called Playlist, where we pick the "best" song from each of the band's album and write about it. Audio is also included. Go check it out. Here are my contributions:

"Moody Fucker" from Nine/Moody Fucker 7" (1993)

There are fuckers all over the Lambchop catalog, whether it's the little fuckers of "Smuckers" or in this case, the moody fucker from the song of the same name. And Tools in the Dryer is a fucker in its own right: consisting of various B-sides, remixes, live songs, demos and other curiosities from 1987 to 2000, the album is a strong contender for the band's least essential album (yes, even more so than Co-Lab). Indeed, picking a best song from this one was difficult, as much of Tools hasn't aged particularly well. That might sound like an out-of-place comment for a feature whose purpose is to celebrate a band's catalog, but Tools is for diehard fans only. And not too many of them, I'd argue.

So the nod goes to "Moody Fucker," though the band's cover of Vic Chesnutt's "Miss Prissy" runs a close second. Despite its lullaby-worthy arrangement and smoky horns, the song is anything but soothing. Wagner's unapologetically blunt lyrics serve the song well, as lines like "I don't want to cry no more/ How 'bout you" and "Now I'm pounding on the brink/ To be a moody fucker" can be read as mocking, insulting or just maybe a little bit remorseful. It also doesn't succumb to the excess of the lounge-music style that the band has occasionally embraced too affectionately throughout their albums. "Moody Fucker" is a diamond mixed in among a pile of shit, to be sure, but with any band as prolific as Lambchop, that type of thing is probably inevitable but also entirely forgivable.

"All Smiles and Mariachi" from How I Quit Smoking (1996)
What's exactly going on in "All Smiles and Mariachi?" Hell if I know, and Kurt Wagner's not saying either, as the vocalist over the years has revealed details about his songs only sparingly. Whatever its chain of events, the narrator clearly isn't enjoying his present situation, as he tunes his dinner companion out for over 20 minutes, spending the majority of his time, in a line that never ceases to make me chuckle, "Nodding and eating most of the chips." The narrator also drops something off at a house (who the hell knows what), scores donuts afterwards in a fit of euphoria and is happy to find his "services no longer required," whatever those were. It's like listening to a story from a drunkard or small child, only this is a story that never grows stale.

I might have boycotted this playlist - or at least made life hell for Spectrum Culture's editor-in-chief - had "All Smiles and Mariachi" not made the cut. Along with "Suzieju" and, in a pinch, "We Never Argue," it's one of the defining tracks on How I Quit Smoking, the band's 1996 sophomore and, arguably, best album. It contains everything great about early Lambchop: a skewed instrumental take on country music, quirky humor and abstract lyrics that could be read as poetic gibberish, deeply philosophical or maybe a little bit of both. Wagner's cadence and pacing are flawless, while the horns that close the song give it some added Mexicali flavor. All these pieces add up to a song that, while mostly incomprehensible, encapsulates why so many fans consider How I Quit Smoking the band's first masterpiece.

"The Gettysburg Address" from Treasure Chest of the Enemy (2002)
It's worth remembering that Abraham Lincoln reportedly considered his Gettysburg address a failure and was prone to bouts of intense introspection throughout his life. It's a character trait the protagonist of "Gettysburg Address" would likely appreciate. Appearing first on the tour-only CD-R Treasure Chest of the Enemy and again on 2006's odds-and-ends collection The Decline of Country and Western Civilization, Pt. 2, "Gettysburg Address" is defined by similar strands of self-doubt and brooding. Whatever historical parallels a listener might try to find here, the song works just as well on a contemporary level, as Wagner provides the type of little lyrical details - hacked-up phlegm, full ashtrays and a sad-sack guy taking out the trash and unable to keep the days straight - that are the hallmarks of a master storyteller.

Built around an opening guitar and piano arrangement and a middle section that adds pedal steel and strings, the song also features some of Wagner's most assured and clearly enunciated vocals. Anyone who complains that all Wagner does is croak and mumble should listen to this one, as his singing here is confident, especially in the song's last verse. "Gettysburg Address" can be read in various ways, whether as a song rooted in American history, a song about the creative process and how a work of art is viewed by its author vs. the public or just as a simple lament about someone's more desperate moments when one's flaws are magnified and the personal becomes almost unbearably public.

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