Album : Nixon by Lambchop
Review : NME, 1 March 2000
Author : Gavin Martin
On this, their fifth and greatest album, Kurt Wagner‘s ever-expanding 17-piece country soul outfit aren’t fucking around. Absorbing and magnifying the territory explored on its immediate predecessors, ‘What Another Man Spills’ and ‘Thriller‘, ‘Nixon’ is by any criteria an astonishing work.
Awash with delirious dream-bound strings, sanctifying gospel choirs, beautiful brass flourishes, pedal steels, Rhodes organ and, of course, open-end wrenches, it’s been called an alt-country ‘Pet Sounds’, Wagner (a Nashville-based floor-layer by day, genius by night) steering his inspired collective into areas of boundless musical wonder while keeping a sure and tender grasp on the emotional strings that tie these songs together.
Given the sheer sonorous delight of the Lambchop sound, the ‘Pet Sounds’ comparison is understandable if ultimately misleading. Once the magical opener ‘The Old Gold Shoe‘ – strewn with images of loss and abundance – takes flight you are borne aloft and thereafter free to explore a cosmic American ideal that would do Brian Wilson or Gram Parsons, or anyone proud. But as a singer and songwriter, Wagner operates at a remove from both his contemporaries and predecessors, his gentle imprecations, salty asides and off-kilter musings delivered in a raw falsetto that often sounds like a ravaged, confessional and mischievous ghost.
What Wagner has been working towards in a series of records that began with the tentative ‘I Hope You’re Sitting Down’ in 1994, is a music that illuminates the odd victories and tragedies of commonplace experience. Though it’s gilded with gentle rhapsodies, lush embellishments and thrilling expositions, ‘Nixon’ achieves its aims without ever resorting to overkill. Even in ‘Up With People’ – a joyous ode to friendship, procreation and dreams – the ‘Chop delight in caressing odd contrasts and eking out awkward emotional crevices.
Wagner’s mastery of the twisted love lyric comes to some sort of peak on ‘The Distance From Her To There’, summoning up a clumsy seduction with the line, “It’s not a theatre kiss/More like a railway piss”. So what, you may ask, has this all got to do with the man who was possibly the most mendacious US president of the last century? Ostensibly not much, the album was recorded before the cover image and the title were decided upon. Even so, the lyrics come complete with a Nixon reading list, the implication is that as someone who came of age in Tricky Dick’s era, Wagner can’t help but work in the dark shadow left by his legacy.
Mapping out a musical Utopia where Glen Campbell‘s golden era meets primetime Philadelphia soul and the dark gossamer funk of the late Curtis Mayfield is a constant presence, Wagner’s method even on the glowering looming despair of the magnificent ‘The Petrified Florist’ is a life-affirming riposte to the fear, division and paranoia Nixon fostered.
Fate and history can serve judgment on Richard Milhouse’s legacy – right now ‘Nixon’ is a swooning wonder, covered in glory. 9/10
JC adds : Lambchop had passed me by until the release of Nixon. Gavin Martin wasn’t the only one who sang its praises and I bought it, partly on the back of all the positive words, and partly as the man who owned the indie record store in Glasgow told me it was a great listen. And it is….to the extent that everything that came before (as I went out and purchased the back catalogue) wasn’t quite as good, and everything that has come since hasn’t quite matched Nixon’s consistent brilliance.