Friday, March 30, 2012

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 3/30/12 - The Decemberists and Lambchop

After returning to relatively humble ambitions with their last studio album, The Decemberists have went triple-live gonzo with We All Raise Our Voices to the Air (Live Songs 04.11–08.11), and the results should easily meet their fans expectations. And while its contents may not convert the dubious, it might at least provide them with a clue to what the fuss is about.
A great many live records have been issued over the years by a diversity of pop and rock artists, and with a few notable exceptions, these documents generally serve two purposes. One, they stand as a commentary on the success of an act and a gift to those consumers who made that success possible. Second, they can provide proof that a performer or band can indeed put their thing across on the performance platform.
If pop and rock after the Beatles has largely been a phenomenon of greatness judged through studio albums, there has also been a persnickety attitude that those deemed great must also be able to exhibit their talent on the stage, the nude environment that doesn’t lie. This contrasts rather strongly with jazz, where it’s essentially considered a given that the players on a studio LP have made it there by already displaying their skill on the bandstand.
In rock in particular, those aforementioned exceptions to the standard of live albums as templates of success and proof have risen to some of the form’s most vital moments. For example, James Brown’s Live at the Apollo made it plain that the essence of soul music wasn’t located in the mind of a record label entrepreneur seeking chart success but in the mastery of one man and his crack band captured making history in front of a few hundred people in a jam-packed auditorium.
And if Jerry Lee Lewis’ Live at the Star Club was recorded with the intention of proving its leader could still bowl over a crowd and incinerate a club with reckless abandon, it was also a statement of defiance delivered to a public that had kicked him to the curb as unseemly and unworthy of their attention and respect.
Likewise, 1969: The Velvet Underground Live amplifies the achievement of a group very few people cared about while they actually existed, an apathy that doubtlessly shaped their status as rock’s greatest outsiders. And The Grateful Dead’s Live/Dead captures a single-minded and expansive band on a grand night making music that the confines of a studio simply couldn’t inspire or contain.
It should come as no great surprise that The Decemberists’ We All Raise Our Voices to the Air (Live Songs 04.11–08.11) doesn’t endeavor to the heights of the previous four examples. If its two plus hours spread over two compact discs or three vinyl LPs seems like a grandiose collection by a band that’s never been afraid of engaging with the maximal, the release is appealingly modest in its aims, the most immediate one being a condensed account of the band’s well-earned and somewhat unlikely success.
I say unlikely because their non-confessional, highly literary sensibility is frankly the stuff that cult status is made of. And I say well-earned because The Decemberists’ claimed their success through the traditional modes of high quality (and in their case, often thematically elaborate) albums and extensive touring, graduating from small clubs to larger halls and then to amphitheatres and multi-day outdoor festivals. So as an unabashed album band that can do it on the road, We All Raise Our Voices to the Air’s sheer length lacks arrogance or self-indulgence and instead testifies to the nature of a fan base where favorite songs are numerous and no one release has emerged as the consensus best.
We All Raise Our Voices to the Air also stands as a gesture of goodwill to the group’s devoted fans. But on closer inspection, it might have something more than just a statement on success and a thank you in mind, for its track listing, taken from a tour supporting their last studio album The King is Dead, insinuates that The Decemberists might have a little something to prove.
In this age of camera phones and copious YouTube clips, proving it as a live band is nowhere near as difficult as it used to be. And bands of their ilk don’t pull off shows playing in-sequence renderings of high-concept albums like ‘09’s The Hazards of Love via smoke and mirrors. But The King is Dead, while garnering its share of praise also seemed to divide critics and listeners over the perception of playing it safe and staking out the middle of a road paved with mere folk and Americana. ‘Tis true that King may have won back some folks put off by Hazards’ hints of prog-rock and metal, but for many listeners their last effort felt like The Decemberists minus the creative chutzpah.
Seven of We All Raise Our Voices to the Air’s songs originate from The King is Dead, and if that doesn’t seem surprising considering the shows partially included here were in support of that record, it also seems possible that The Decemberists are looking to integrate its less ambitious goals into the larger weave of their discography and maybe soften the expectation (a band instigated one, true) that in terms of scope every new release must equal or top the last one.
If the choice of seven songs from The King is Dead does contain a potential element of attempted validation regarding their most recent direction, their inclusion also simultaneously possesses an atmosphere of preaching to the choir. And this is okay. Actually it’s much more than okay, since We All Raise Our Voices to the Air’s surface unwieldiness is actually quite thoughtfully sequenced to deliver a pair of sets that build to very impressive climaxes.
If The Hazards of Love’s lofty concept is given an almost token acknowledgement via “The Rake’s Song”, that slight is softened (and immediately followed in the track order) by the inclusion of “The Crane Wife 1, 2 and 3”. While Colin Meloy partakes in a fair share of banter, crowd interaction and many humorous asides, it’s the sixteen minutes of “The Crane Wife” (which closes disc one, or side three of the vinyl) and the appropriately escalated grandeur of the already debonair “I Was Meant For the Stage” replete with an extended culminating orchestral skronk-fest (which ends disc two or side six) that provides ample evidence of the band’s ability to get right down to the business of playing live music.
And the band’s performances vary enough from their studio origins to make them worth the investment, but they also don’t lose the qualities that made them so appealing in the first place. This is particularly relevant to “The Soldiering Song” and obviously to “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”, which retains much of its splendor even after becoming a by now inevitable audience participation melee.
“Calamity Song” is also given a fine reading, and the concise pop of “O Valencia!” really shines in this atmosphere. Of course certain tunes are absent. I especially miss “Odalisque”, a track that would doubtlessly shine in the concert setting (and one I’ve unfortunately never heard them play), but if frustrated expectations are a part of the nature of seeing a band play live, this circumstance is certainly extended to live records.
We All Raise Our Voices to the Air is a very impressive document of some quite seamlessly selected (and sequenced) performances, but in the end it’s really no game-changer, which is to say The Decemberists are still largely the same band they were before its release. But if they keep on trucking, this 3LP set might end up becoming their Europe ’72. Its contents already provide a fine alternative to the underwhelming obviousness of a standard Greatest Hits collection.

After a wait of over three years, Kurt Wagner and his band of astute conspirators have delivered yet another highly distinguished album. Lambchop’s Mr. M unwinds as just one more example of Wagner and Co’s unfussy brilliance, and it adds to the oeuvre of one of the finest acts American music has produced in the last quarter century.   
Due to the nature of their early musical inclination, a rustic sound that held uneasy relationships with the comforts of both contemporaneousness and tradition, Lambchop has been frequently identified as one of the more eclectic examples of the alt-country genre, a circumstance that’s only been amplified by the group’s residence in Nashville, TN.  It’s a tag that Kurt Wagner and Co has never really bristled against, even after moving considerably beyond the template established by their first few albums, mainly because there really isn’t another genre that can comfortably house them.
However, Wagner can be grouped with Will Oldham, David Berman and Bill Callahan, all artists that charted paths out of the early ‘90s US indie boom to their own uniquely expressive ends. But of this foursome, Berman is no longer musically active, riding out on a high note, Oldham is a heavily collaborative and highly prolific operator continually shifting between on-again off-again bands and projects, and Callahan is most accurately sized-up as a solo artist. In this group it’s in Wagner alone that we find an artist so inclined to explore the possibilities of a gradually shifting (in membership as well as sound) long term collective.
Mr. M opens with “If Not I’ll Just Die”, four and a half minutes of lush, symphonic lounge, a song that if used as an introduction to Lambchop would surely bypass any alt-country connections and instead inspire an association with neo-easy listening. But for longtime listeners this development is par for the course, the use of strings being a longstanding component of the band’s arsenal asserting itself as far back as their second album How I Quit Smoking. If on “If Not I’ll Just Die” Lambchop are shooting for a Tormé /Sinatra vibe instead of the chamber-country of Smoking’s “We Never Argue” or the deep soul excavation of What Another Man Spills’ Curtis Mayfield cover “Give Me Your Love” (Love Song)”, well, that’s just gravy. And the song does feature the sterling piano of Tony Crow, traces of gentle noise adding brief and familiar commentary, and of course the immediately recognizable properties of Wagner’s voice and lyrics, all three casually establishing the group’s aural signature.
“If Not I’ll Just Die” is a study in contrast, another example of how Lambchop’s gorgeous arrangements and impeccable instrumentation sugar the pill of Wagner’s examinations of loss, dysfunction, alienation and despair. With the notable exception of some of their country-soul inflected stuff that sprung up on Thriller and What Another Man Spills (see the covers of Mayfield, Frederick Knight’s Stax nugget “I’ve Been Lonely For So Long” and even their vamping up of East River Pipe’s “Hey, Where’s Your Girl?”), this has largely been the band’s default mode. And while this mixture of beauty and darkness wisely avoids the maudlin, it’s also not exactly a barrel of laughs, which is one probable explanation for Lambchop’s small yet devoted core following stateside.
And Mr. M is an even darker album than usual for the band. For starters, it’s dedicated to the memory of Vic Chesnutt, a gifted musician stricken with long-term health problems who took his own life on Xmas day in 2009. Listening to the album with this tribute to a departed friend in mind (Lambchop backed Chesnutt on the outstanding 1998 LP The Salesman and Bernadette) only deepens this record’s moods of frustration, particularly those of emotional and physical separation examined on “2B2”. The song’s stripped down yet sturdy musical bed slowly grows into a sweet melancholy ache while Wagner’s loose yet resonant imagery and a muffled, troubled answering machine recording intensify the aura of isolation and the accumulation of otherwise insubstantial activity (taking down Xmas lights, watching TV, cooking a meal) that accompany it.
But there are moments on Mr. M that if not necessarily upbeat, at least provide a crucial sense of moderate uplift that helps shape the record into another smartly delivered tapestry of expressiveness. “Gone Tomorrow” and particularly both of the disc’s exceptional instrumentals “Gar” and “Betty’s Overture” prove that while not a band of astounding sonic diversity, Lambchop do possess impressive range within the confines of their well-established sound. And while a wealth of diversity can be admirable (if focused, natch), the sort of disciplined range this band has made a habit of displaying is perhaps a greater achievement.
Like most of Lambchop’s albums, the quality of the tracks and their relationship to each other makes it difficult to locate a high point. It certainly could be found in the expert tonal shifts of “Mr. Met”, a song where the Tosca String Quartet’s tough chamber feel contrasts with the lush contributions of the London String Ensemble on tracks like “If Not I’ll Just Die” or “Gone Tomorrow”. And like “2B2”, “Nice Without Mercy” foregoes strings, adapting a spare forcefulness that accents some of the album’s more liner storytelling. However, Wagner’s most straightforward lyrics come on “The Good Life (is wasted)”, the tune flaunting some of the C&W feel that he’s largely sidestepped on recent Lambchop releases in favor of a sort of Southern Leonard Cohen-ist vibe. If in the past he could come off like moodier Tom T. Hall, on “The Good Life” he sounds like a mixture of Don Williams and Lee Hazelwood.
That C&W feel was given a much more thorough examination on KORT: Invariable Heartache, Wagner’s collaboration with singer Courtney Tidwell that came out last year. It featured members of Lambchop in the band and found the vocalists paying tribute to obscure Nashville label Chart Records by indulging in some sly duets that recalled the prime discourse of George and Tammy. While Mr. M eschews this sensibility, Tidwell does appear in a backup role, and her turn on the instrumental “Gar” brings a subtle exotica flavor to what’s already a pleasant, airy tune. She’s also briefly on “Betty’s Overture”, lending a noirish feel to what sounds like a Shorty Rogers or Johnny Mandel composed theme for a TV show about a kickass yet emotionally troubled lady secret agent.
But everybody on the record contributes in top form, and in a way that resists singling out individuals for specific praise. Lambchop’s is an ensemble sound after all, low on flash and high on interaction. The group’s masterful maturity elevates Mr. M’s 11 songs into a simply superb document, the record denoting the third installment in a loose triumvirate of late-works with ‘06’s Damaged and ‘08’s OH (Ohio). For fans of the band it’s an indispensable purchase, but I can’t imagine there are many Lambchop partisans that haven’t already picked it up.
Please note that the 2LP edition includes four bonus tracks, three of them remixes, one a top-notch cover of Glen Campbell’s (Brian Wilson-penned) “Guess I’m Dumb”. All the extra stuff is located on side four, which smartly allows the album’s thematic integrity to remain intact. And along with the download coupon, the whole package clearly shows why Merge continues to thrive creatively after growing into one of the music scene’s bigger true indies. As does the fact that they’ve stuck with Lambchop’s stately accomplishments for nearly twenty years.