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.