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The Daily Tar Heel

Lambchop Conjures Up Sultry Torch Singer Image



4 Stars

Nashville, Tenn., is known these days as a music-making machine that chews up aspiring country artists and spits them out as processed, identical pop products.

So there must have been a short circuit the day the machine made Lambchop -- a band that transcends its country- influenced roots to create music that is unclassifiable, guileless and beautiful on Is a Woman.

The band's cheerful willingness to make a musical about-face on every release -- from alt-country to soul to a concept album exploring Richard Nixon's presidency -- has marked it as one of the most unique acts of the past decade.

Is a Woman fuses elements of classic jazz, indie pop and folk balladry to create a poignant document of frontman and songwriter Kurt Wagner's skewed perspective on life. ("Sometimes, William, we're just screwed," Wagner tells a friend who's trying to deal with an acquaintance's death.)

On this album, Lambchop's sixth LP on Durham's Merge Records, the band has inflated to a veritable orchestra of 18 musicians. It's hard to imagine what all those people are doing, especially when seven of them play guitar -- that's electric guitar, acoustic guitar, space guitar, noise guitar and just plain guitar -- but somehow it works beautifully.

What comes out of the melee are lovely, deceptively simple love songs to life's ironies. On Is a Woman, Lambchop channels the spirit of acclaimed troubadour Tom Waits circa 1973's Closing Time. But the band adds shades of atmospheric subtlety to Waits' piano-based style, and Wagner puts his stamp on every song with dry Lou Reed-like vocals and inscrutable lyrics.

For the first few melodramatic moments of the opening track, "The Daily Growl," you'd swear you were listening to your parents' Nat King Cole album. In fact, the whole release conjures up a torch-singer-in-a-smoky-bar image -- if one can imagine a torch singer crooning absurd things like "Squirrels that cross you overhead/ Make their way to their squirrelly bed/ Yes, even squirrels have beds" (from "Bugs").

But Lambchop doesn't just revel in retro influences on Is a Woman. Its sound is modernized through the use of synthesizer, vibes and assorted other implements (crickets are among those listed). Astute touches like the sound of a music box on "Autumn's Vicar" or the reggae beat of the title track make for blissful musical moments throughout the album.

This certainly isn't music to party by -- the closest Lambchop comes to rocking out is the almost-funky "D. Scott Parsley," which is also the nearest to the sound of Lambchop's earlier releases. The remainder of the tracks are slow to lilting.

Is a Woman is best suited to sitting next to a window staring out at the rain. It's the unexpected and perfect soundtrack to those not-quite-sunny late winter days.

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at artsdesk@unc.edu.

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