Lampchop, Kurt Wagner's ten-man Nashville clique, backed Vic Chesnutt on last year's The Salesman and Bernadette, a truly strange album featuring country, white soul and electronic droning played for emotional unreadability. For Nixon, the band has expanded to seventeen pieces for some solid tuneage. On its own, though, Lambchop is neither as arty nor as earthy as Chesnutt. Not outside of Music Row's city limits, anyway.
Lambchop's music is loaded with affectation, and maybe that's all it is. But even as the band's offerings blur the line between irony and innovation, its melodic country/soul cross-ups make for classy listening. Where most country-music parodists skin tunes by belting and twanging them out of all proportion, Wagner's pleasant baritone has just enough bemusement in it to make the sarcasm of his words inviting. He not only collaborates with Chesnutt on some lyrics that capture life's little surrealisms and downturns, but he also writes about kids, represented right down to fetus form on tunes like "Grumpass." Unfortunately, there's a little recurring problem: Easy as the listening is, the wit or pathos of Wagner's lyrics and tunes are cheapened every time he uses his falsetto, a truly irritating, nasal sound apparently inspired by Shari Lewis's beloved hand puppet. But didn't Lewis already do enough for this band when she inspired its name?
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Inviting, uncanny musical touches run throughout Nixon, including the unclassifiable "Up With People," with its swirling bass/vibe riff that recalls Joe Jackson's hit tune "Stepping Out," the hypnotic vibe/plucked guitar riff on "Nashville Parents," and the pile-driving finale that caps all the mood music -- the updated folk tune "The Butcher Boy." Lambchop uses strings and horns as jokes, too, sounding like Lenny Kravitz arranging for the Spinners. (Get what I mean by affectation?) However, Lambchop's playing is unpretentious enough to describe as simply non-soul men performing non-country songs. Maybe that's what it takes to shock 'em in Nashville.