Lambchop Bare Their Inscrutable Hearts On Mr. M

Lambchop are weirdos. Which means that theoretically, they should be flourishing right now: indie-rock is in the midst of a brief, fervent patch of weirdo adoration. But the long-running Nashville institution, which releases its 11th album Mr. M this week, handily demonstrates the profound gap separating the brightly colored weirdness that draws delighted, flocking crowds (tUnE-YarDs, Dirty Projectors) from the kind that clears rooms. The band, which has been making records since William Jefferson Clinton's first term, has never once cracked open the door to the outside world any wider than allows for the peering of one bloodshot eye, and ringleader Kurt Wagner has expressed only marginal awareness of whatever is going on around them. They are proudly impervious to popularity.

Which, of course, is a precious commodity anywhere in the world you find it. And Lambchop is just that: the kind of vanishingly rare band allowed to exist over several geologic eras of pop-culture time, pursuing a singular, demented muse. Lambchop is an island, removed from the squalor of everyday world, so terrifically inscrutable that you even start looking for significance in their name: not pork chop, but lamb chop. Surely that must mean something?

Mr. M is, at once, one of the band's most open-hearted and acidic records. It opens with a flourish of strings that invoke memories of Frank Sinatra's great, gloomy indigo-jazz records with string arranger Nelson Riddle. The clothes are old ones, slightly threadbare, and they are ones Lambchop have a winking relationship with, dating back at least to 2001's Nixon. You can smell the used-record-sleeve on them. And so, apparently, can Wagner, something he's quick to draw your attention to. When he enters the song, he appears to be both commenting ironically on its motion and somehow directing its action: "Grandpa's coughing in the kitchen/ But the strings sound good/ Maybe add some flutes/ And how do get the cups out from over there?"

Wagner's voice is the center to Lambchop's fascinating, ornery riddle. By this point, he has acquired the intelligent stink of a veteran character actor, able to summon an entire worldview in a single squint. His singing voice is wildly variable, and it contains a lot of peculiar notes: throaty and possibly lovely, it emerges in little trembling honks, as it if were passing through a goose's throat. He sounds a little choked up, a man giving a speech at his daughter's wedding day. Conversational, a man looking you evenly in the eye and informing you that you are a prick. A man mocking emotion, a man overcome with it: he might be either.

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