ALBUM REVIEW: Lambchop – ‘Showtunes’

The Breakdown

The compelling yet divisive Kurt Wagner's latest offering finds him delving into the songs of the stage and screen - deserving of being cherished for its experimental efforts and hopefully offering a bridge to exploration of his back catalogue.
Merge Records 6.5
Lambchop (credit: Angelina Castillo)

Much as we’d all like to believe in a world of nuance, in most scenarios, the general population can be broken down into two rival groups. Marmite; the X Factor; Leeds United; Guinness – they all split us firmly into one camp or another. Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner creates a similar division, chiefly being between those who are in love with his utterly individual back catalogue and those who have yet to hear it. Find a fan of his and they will chew your ear off about the sheer variety and invariable excellence of his output. But outside of that rabid support, the covering of casual listeners is few and far between. 

That is partly due to the brilliance, as those introduced to his work almost inevitably fall in love with it, but it’s also down to that sheer variety, which has made knowing both where to start difficult for the uncommitted.  Yes, he can give you a leftfield pop thrill in the shape of ‘Your Fucking Sunny Day’ or a uplifting toe-tapper like ‘Up With People’, but he is just as likely to offer up the oblique falsetto cover of Frederick Knight’s ‘I’ve Been Lonely For So Long’ or the pseudo-found poetry of ‘Paperback Bible’. Showtunes falls into the latter bracket.

Inspired by a revelation that he could play piano by simply converting guitar tracks into MIDI keyboard melodies, it is an album that sees Wagner delving, in his mind, into a genre he had never been “too fond of” – the songs of the stage and screen.  That said, the caveat of it being his own interpretation of such a style does a great deal of heavy lifting. These are outliers of the genre, much as Wagner has been a musical outlier himself, ploughing an outsider art-style furrow while the rest of the music business gets on with trying to sell records.  

If there is a link back to the more recognised version of the genre, it would be through ‘A Chef’s Kiss’, a darkly sensual opener which has served as the lead promotional track. It has a melodic air of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Send In The Clowns’, only with lyrics about a civil war veteran’s listening tastes, rather than an aging chanteuse’s regrets. 

Elsewhere, the offerings are so dense, they touch on the unfathomable. ‘Drop C’ has Wagner’s lugubrious drawl laid across a swirling crucible mix of swirling jazz, country and electronica, ‘Fuku’ brings together a thicket of euphonious piano and snatched vocals that ends with a single chord held for over a minute, ‘The Last Benedict’ layers operatic interjections through smoky Tom Waits-ian croons and, perhaps most esoteric of all, the brass-led ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone Journalist’ and the Spanish guitar-tinged ‘Impossible Meatballs’ offer up a pair of dramatically beautiful instrumentals. 

Showtunes is, be warned, certainly not the place to start your adventure into Lambchop, but nor, happily enough, is it the place to end it. It is a collection to be applauded for its experimental efforts, to be cherished for its quirks and affectations, and to be celebrated in its sure message that, almost 30 years after it began, Wagner’s Voyager-esque journey towards the edges of his own musical universe strides ever onwards. 

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