Review Summary: A natural progression you didn't expect
“Showtunes”, Lambchop’s sixteenth album, sees Kurt Wagner’s creative universe in its usual state of creative flux. In this case Wagner and a group of newly-inducted members (most notably James McNew of Yo La Tengo on upright bass) are reacting strongly against the enigmatically warm electronica of their previous two albums, 2016’s “FLOTUS” and 2019’s “This (is what I wanted to tell you)”. It would have been easy for Wagner and co. to retreat back to familiar territory and mine the subtly warped lyricism and sonically rich textures of past highlights such as 2000’s “Nixon” or even 2012’s “Mr. M” before the group turned its style on its head. Of course, such a hypothetical album would be incongruent to Lambchop’s irreverent and constantly-evolving ethos. Instead, the group has chosen to shift their perspective (crucially keeping the electronic sounds of their latter-day albums intact) and has now turned in this brief collection of unsettling vignettes more at home in a dystopia than a conventional theater setting.
This inversion hits immediately from the first seconds of the opening “Chef’s Kiss” – a lone MIDI piano line comes into the foreground, sounding noticeably colder and more apathetic than that of Tony Crow’s playing (a staple of Lambchop records since the late ‘90s). Wagner’s disembodied voice hovers over the slow-moving symphonic instrumental, leaving both an impression of sadness and resignation on the track’s titular climax. The track is quite pleasing to listen to, with a bed of horns and electronic pads providing a satisfying outro. “Drop C” mostly stays in harmonious territory, with autumnal guitars flowing in reverse underneath horns holding a sustained chord. However, the first verse suddenly jumps into a dark synthesized passage that brings to mind Basic Channel’s minimalist electronic pulses as if they were being dragged through mud.
“Fuku” is the clear centerpiece of the record, its seven minutes towering over the album’s half-hour runtime. After an intro that curiously recalls their last two albums’ shimmering synth sounds, the song shifts into a depressive gear. “Fuku” saunters through its dark and intricate structure like a ghost wandering through a burning building, increasing in both beauty and devastation until dissolving into a hollow buzzing tone with the timbre of a flatlining EKG ringing through a deserted hospital hallway. While not as grim as “Fuku”, the rest of the album keeps with the opening tracks’ distinctly alien soundscapes. “The Last Benedict” is a strong ending to the album, with Wagner’s guitar playing adding to the satisfyingly conclusive atmosphere of the song.
Although it is particularly strange, “Showtunes” remains true to Lambchop’s restless ethos and is a solid addition to their catalog. While it points at sonic territory not yet covered by the group, it does remind me of their 2002 record “Is A Woman”. This latter record reacted to the symphonic tones of “Nixon” by stripping Lambchop’s sound to a skeletal and minimalist palette; “Showtunes” contextually seems well-suited as a sibling to that older record. Despite not being their finest record (or meeting the high-water mark of the records it pushes against), “Showtunes” certainly makes another case for Lambchop as one of America’s most consistently interesting and original bands and leaves me hoping that this is not their curtain call.