Lambchop
Is a woman


5.0
classic

Review

by DoofusWainwright CONTRIBUTOR (75 Reviews)
January 22nd, 2016 | 76 replies


Release Date: 2002 | Tracklist

Review Summary: Lambchop is an unpredictable woman

In recent years the world of sports journalism has seen the widespread adoption of a dumbed down form of writing that first reared its ugly head in the tabloids. The obsession with ‘narrative arcs’ has grown exponentially and for any reader who wises up to this technique the result of subsequent exposure to such articles will range somewhere between incredulity and nausea; it’s a world where the chaotic nature of a topsy-turvy match is desperately shoehorned into a partially pre-prepared simplified script for mass consumption. Of course this phenomenon isn’t confined to the field of sports and certainly music critics and fans alike are guilty of similar, in particular the notions of what constitutes success or failure in an artist’s output is frequently unfairly held up to established narrative expectations. It’s an unfortunate habit and one that surely worked against the Lambchop of 2002.

This album’s predecessor, 2000’s ‘Nixon’, was the band’s mainstream breakout; a lush, symphonic work that played to the accepted twin narratives of ‘presenting clear creative and commercial progression’ and ‘adding to the roster of recent ambitiously wide-screen albums by Mercury Rev, The Flaming Lips, Modest Mouse and Grandaddy’. ‘Is a Woman’ flies in the face of any such preordained scripts; the album isn’t afraid to look to the band’s past for inspiration and borrows ideas liberally; the music no longer compares to the latest releases of their supposed contemporaries (the grandiose ‘All is Dream’ or futuristic ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’); and most extreme of all, this release removes layer upon layer of instrumentation and reduces the overall volume to that of a low whisper. Going against expectations meant that ‘Is a Woman’ was oh so easy to dismiss and Lambchop could now be put back in their ‘niche act’ box and largely forgotten about; ‘Nixon’ would go down as the high-water mark of their career and that would be that. This situation was regrettable but hardly uncommon, indeed you'd only class it a genuine travesty if ‘Is a Woman’ was clearly the band’s best work. It is.

This is Kurt Wagner’s defining classic and the most consistent Lambchop release in terms of both quality and tone by quite some distance, an unrelentingly bleak work of unparalleled purity and vision. As ever Wagner’s voice is the ultimate tough sell, he still sounds like the same eccentric croaky voiced and heavily sedated uncle prone to riddles and rambling stream of consciousness monologues as you remember. His vocals always give the impression that there are deep rivers of emotion and wisdom lurking just below that impenetrable surface, tantalising you into trying to form a connection. The lyrics display all of Wagner’s usual tricks; he’s a Cohen disciple who loves to leave sentences hanging on an incongruous note before concluding after a pause (see the use of the word ‘tossing’ in ‘The New Cob Web Summer’); silly word plays abound (‘my uncle’s uncle’s uncles…fester’); and his quirky inflections allow him to drop unexpected swear words into even these most tranquil of waters.

In the interest of harmony the music on Lambchop material is always far more conventionally agreeable than that voice, and though in terms of genre it varies significantly from release to release, the tonal palette always keeps to the same reassuringly familiar pastel shades. ‘Is a Woman’ does away with the sweeping orchestral flourishes of ‘Nixon’ but rather than retreating to the band’s former countrified sound here they approximate the style of a lounge act combining muted guitar and mildly jazzy piano. The first three songs are highly effective in establishing the album’s musical attack, each happy to unfold in a pointedly leisurely manner for over six and a half minutes apiece. Though the song writing hardly dips throughout it’s this opening trio that stands tallest, the songs complement each other to an uncanny degree and each is a minor masterpiece of sombre eloquence; the lyrics to ‘My Blue Wave’ in particular are devastating, with off the cuff remarks like ‘sometimes William we’re just screwed’ standing out for their perfectly weighted poignancy.

The greatest danger with an album such as this is the lack of tonal variety stifling it to death and thankfully ‘Is a Woman’ works hard to avoid this common failing; the album is imbued with a rich subtlety thanks in part to the inspired use of found-sounds and field recordings that are expertly deployed to colour around the edges of the sparse arrangements. Whether it's the distant ringing of bells, the sound of crickets, birdsong, or something less readily identifiable, these barely audible additions help massively in conjuring an all-enveloping atmosphere. The pervading dark mood of the album is also lifted at key moments such as on the near-funk of ‘D. Scott Parsley’ and the reggae inflected coda of the title track. All these musical touches add together to make for a smooth dreamlike quality that’s familiar to Lambchop, only this time presented in an even more understated package; if ever there was a headphone recording that required the listener's undivided concentration and patience to reveal its murky depths it's this one.

Perhaps ‘Is a Woman’ was always doomed following a crowd pleaser like ‘Nixon’; there’s certainly little about it that’s obvious or showy, though the suspicion remains that this album was too readily labelled ‘a retreat’ by an off sided music press. It’s fitting this album should contain a song titled ‘Caterpillar’ as this feels an apt label to the album as a whole in relation to the eyecatching ‘Nixon’ butterfly. The near universal acclaim for the band’s most recent release, the similarly reflective and tender ‘Mr M’, shows that the reception an album meets can be determined by expectations and musical climate to a greater extent than we perhaps assume. Despite this renewed interest there still doesn’t appear to be much appetite for revisiting the less celebrated dark corners of the Lambchop discography and that’s a shame; ‘Is a Woman’ is the unsung masterpiece of this unassuming band’s career.



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user ratings (31)
Chart.
4.1
excellent

Comments:Add a Comment 
DoofusWainwright
Contributing Reviewer
January 22nd 2016


11655 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

'The dog gives you the paw.......'



Was a better song recorded in 2002 than 'My Blue Wave'? If so I want to hear it

Digging: Stormzy - Gang Signs & Prayer

TheCrocodile
January 22nd 2016


2586 Comments


I like women. pos

Aside from that great massive review. Might check based on the vocals description

DoofusWainwright
Contributing Reviewer
January 22nd 2016


11655 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Cheers Croc - I guarantee the vocals are nutty

TwigTW
January 22nd 2016


2265 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Always wanted to check out Lambchop, and now I have . . . Only half-way through, but this is gorgeous--quiet, but gorgeous.

Digging: Mark Hollis - Mark Hollis

DoofusWainwright
Contributing Reviewer
January 22nd 2016


11655 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

TWIG - if you want to hear them a little less quiet 'Nixon' and 'Mr M' are both really excellent too

TwigTW
January 22nd 2016


2265 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

will do, thanks

TwigTW
November 1st 2016


2265 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

"‘Is a Woman’ is the unsung masterpiece of this unassuming band’s career."



Couldn't agree more. The new albums got me listening to this again, and it's even better than I remember.



edit: "Caterpillar" is killing me--so good.

DoofusWainwright
Contributing Reviewer
November 1st 2016


11655 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Caterpillar is one of the best here agreed

zakalwe
November 23rd 2016


20417 Comments


The most doof album of all time. This is class.

DoofusWainwright
Contributing Reviewer
November 23rd 2016


11655 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Zak remember I got into this and Sunhouse about two or three months apart - two top 10'ers out of nowhere :D



Dunno how 2017 is going to compete with that

zakalwe
November 23rd 2016


20417 Comments


I've just bought it and am listening now. can't believe I sat on this band for so long. Absolutely lovely stuff.

DoofusWainwright
Contributing Reviewer
November 23rd 2016


11655 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

It's a bit of a cult classic this, you do hear the occasional musician namedrop it in the press

zakalwe
November 23rd 2016


20417 Comments


My Blue Wave is a blinder

DoofusWainwright
Contributing Reviewer
November 23rd 2016


11655 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

My favourite Lambchop tune, it's unbeatable



'Paperback Bible' off the 'Damaged' album is almost as good though

Lucid
December 25th 2016


7558 Comments


Caterpillar is lovely

theBoneyKing
January 11th 2017


7388 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Just gave this a listen - of course it's great, though it's definitely going to take quite a few listens to really settle in.

Digging: Jens Lekman - Life Will See You Now

DoofusWainwright
Contributing Reviewer
January 12th 2017


11655 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Took me ages to appreciate this one, still think it's their best.



Tell you what though, the debut is starting to win me over after about six listens

theBoneyKing
January 12th 2017


7388 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Judging from the albums I've heard so far these guys possibly beat out The National in terms of how strongly their albums grow. Each one starts out as "decent but perhaps a bit too nondescript" but then I enjoy each album more with every listen. Flotus has actually been the most immediate for me so far and is also my favorite, but I've still only heard this twice, and I'm hoping to find another major gem or three in the rest of their pretty massive discog.

theBoneyKing
January 12th 2017


7388 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

The lyrics on this thing are truly amazing. Wagner is also pretty quickly becoming one of my favorite vocalists though I can see why he doesn't appeal to some.

DoofusWainwright
Contributing Reviewer
January 12th 2017


11655 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

I think you'll really enjoy the debut when you get to it as it is the most obviously 'alt country' in approach. It's a bit too long, and there are at least 4 average-to-weak songs, but that still leaves you with ten great ones. 'Soaky in the Pooper' is legendary.



'Damaged' was my introduction to Lambchop and I do blame it for making me believe they were a middle-hitter of a band. The opener and closer on that album are absolutely immense though.



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