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Welcome to PLAYLIST. The idea is simple enough: make a playlist (with mix tapes and CDs becoming so unfortunately passé) centered around one artist or band with a deep catalog. There is only one parameter, however. Our charge is to limit our playlist to just one song per album per discography. This time around we decided to pick the best of Lambchop. It wasn’t easy.

So once again, we got together, butted heads and hashed out this list. We hope it not only motivates you to dig into your Lambchop collection again, but to come up with your own lists or an impetus to check this great band out for the first time! PLAYLIST will be a recurring feature here on Spectrum Culture, so please tune in, check them out and share your thoughts. Enjoy! – David Harris

“Moody Fucker” from Nine/Moody Fucker 7″ (1993)

There are fuckers all over the Lambchop catalog, whether it’s the little fuckers of “Smuckers” or in this case, the moody fucker from the song of the same name. And Tools in the Dryer, which includes the band’s Nine/Moody Fucker 7″, is a fucker in its own right: consisting of various B-sides, remixes, live songs, demos and other curiosities from 1987 to 2000, the album is a strong contender for the band’s least essential album (yes, even more so than Co-Lab). Indeed, picking a best song from this one was difficult, as much of Tools hasn’t aged particularly well. That might sound like an out-of-place comment for a feature whose purpose is to celebrate a band’s catalog, but Tools is for diehard fans only. And not too many of them, I’d argue.

So the nod goes to “Moody Fucker,” though the band’s cover of Vic Chesnutt’s “Miss Prissy” runs a close second. Despite its lullaby-worthy arrangement and smoky horns, the song is anything but soothing. Wagner’s unapologetically blunt lyrics serve the song well, as lines like “I don’t want to cry no more/ How ’bout you” and “Now I’m pounding on the brink/ To be a moody fucker” can be read as mocking, insulting or just maybe a little bit remorseful. It also doesn’t succumb to the excess of the lounge-music style that the band has occasionally embraced too affectionately throughout their albums. “Moody Fucker” is a diamond mixed in among a pile of shit, to be sure, but with any band as prolific as Lambchop, that type of thing is probably inevitable but also entirely forgivable. – Eric Dennis

“Soaky in the Pooper” from I Hope You’re Sitting Down/Jack’s Tulips (1994)

This blurb will be the first and last time you see the nickname “Nashville’s most fucked-up country band” in this feature. Though Lambchop may have outlived that moniker, the band’s debut record I Hope You’re Sitting Down/Jack’s Tulips (1994) on Merge (the label they still use today) does not sound like a country record at all. Rather, the songs of bespectacled singer Kurt Wagner feature a mélange of post-modernist mumblings and something more Americana than the other shit we called country circa the mid-’90s. Wagner could be the Woody Allen of indie music as many of his songs touch on the morose with a knowing wryness. Take the album’s best song: “Soaky in the Pooper.” As an opening salvo, you can’t get much better than a suicide in the bathroom. Opening with gentle, arpeggiated guitars and deep, funereal brass, Wagner chronicles the desperate demise of some guy who decides to drown himself in the toilet. Yet, because the song is so delicate and hushed it’s more tragic than funny, even if Wagner does rhyme “bluish” with “Jewish.” “You’re never lonely when you’re dead,” the deceased once said before he takes his final plunge. Let’s hope that’s the truth. – David Harris

“All Smiles and Mariachi” from How I Quit Smoking (1996)

What’s exactly going on in “All Smiles and Mariachi?” Hell if I know, and Kurt Wagner’s not saying either, as the vocalist over the years has revealed details about his songs only sparingly. Whatever its chain of events, the narrator clearly isn’t enjoying his present situation, as he tunes his dinner companion out for over 20 minutes, spending the majority of his time, in a line that never ceases to make me chuckle, “Nodding and eating most of the chips.” The narrator also drops something off at a house (who the hell knows what), scores donuts afterwards in a fit of euphoria and is happy to find his “services no longer required,” whatever those were. It’s like listening to a story from a drunkard or small child, only this is a story that never grows stale.

I might have boycotted this playlist – or at least made life hell for Spectrum Culture’s editor-in-chief – had “All Smiles and Mariachi” not made the cut. Along with “Suzieju” and, in a pinch, “We Never Argue,” it’s one of the defining tracks on How I Quit Smoking, the band’s 1996 sophomore and, arguably, best album. It contains everything great about early Lambchop: a skewed instrumental take on country music, quirky humor and abstract lyrics that could be read as poetic gibberish, deeply philosophical or maybe a little bit of both. Wagner’s cadence and pacing are flawless, while the horns that close the song give it some added Mexicali flavor. All these pieces add up to a song that, while mostly incomprehensible, encapsulates why so many fans consider How I Quit Smoking the band’s first masterpiece. – Eric Dennis

“I’m a Stranger Here” from Hank (1996)

“I’m a Stranger Here” is one of those pleasantly fucked-up Lambchop moments that makes me wonder whether I should feel like I’m cloud surfing or dirt diving. Judging by the lyrics that begin the beautifully morose opener of the downtrodden-deadbeat-down-in-the-dumps Hank EP, it’s probably the latter. “Ain’t it hard to stumble when you got no place to fall/ In this whole wide world, yes I’ve got no place at all/ ‘Cause I’m a stranger here/ I’m a stranger everywhere,” Kurt Wagner sings in Lambchop’s version of this traditional song, evoking the old-fashioned country sentiments that characterize this seven-song EP.

Plenty of musicians have tackled this song that explores the woes of a lonesome loser with no home and little hope, but damn, rarely has this melancholy ballad sounded so beautiful. Backed by a mega-mellow blend of weepy guitars and percussion, Wagner’s world-weary voice almost quivers to the point of fading into cowboy oblivion, even as he delivers characteristically unorthodox (and borderline psychedelic) lyrics about saddling his black bear and finding a fair deal in this world somewhere. On a record that’s unabashedly gloomy, “I’m a Stanger Here” is both elegiac and buoyant, the kind of Lambchop tune that hooks you with its silky arrangements even while the song’s lyrics make you want to drown your sorrows on your favorite barstool in the local saloon. It may not cheer you up exactly, but good luck walking away from it. – Marcus David

“Your Fucking Sunny Day” from Thriller (1997)

The high point for energy, joy and sheer incomprehensibility on Michael Jackson’s Thriller is opener “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin,'” one of those great tracks that, while ostensibly about something, is better enjoyed as a mindless stream of delirious babble. The equivalent on Lambchop’s Thriller has to be “Your Fucking Sunny Day,” which, aside from the title’s bad manners, may be the album’s most genial and carefree track. It’s not exactly mindless, but the jaunty delivery and driving horns contribute to a theme of words as window dressing, hinting more at mood and tone than exact expression. We get references to sprinklers, wind and the aforementioned sun, off-hand indicators of summer and warmth that mostly tie into the brass and vocal riffing that propel the song.

Sandwiched between a low-key burble with a gruff title (“My Face Your Ass,” which repeatedly threatens “I’ll show your punk rock ass“) and a propulsive, slide-guitar heavy romp (“Hey Where’s Your Girl?”), “Your Fucking Sunny Day” feels like a game changer, pulling the band to exceptional heights of unadulterated whimsy. Wagner is in equally rare form, opening with a blissful yelp, tossing ironic humor and wacky line-endings onto words that become increasingly oblique as the song progresses. Much of the rhyme work, especially the fitful be/see/need/agree scheme, feels like nonsense, but it’s nonsense that’s right at home in a song whose lyrical vacuity is spun into gold. – Jesse Cataldo

“The Saturday Option” from What Another Man Spills (1998)

For the first chapter of Lambchop’s career, they played the part of a deliriously offbeat Nashville outfit, whose country arrangements were often so precise and pretty when coupled with Kurt Wagner’s unmistakably bizarre vocal styling and lyrics that the results bordered on derangement. Then came What Another Man Spills in 1998 and the beginning of a new, more confounding, chapter. The album weaved elements of jazz, soul and funk nakedly into its hazy forefront rather than just hinting at them as the band did in the past. The collective even covered songs by the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Frederick Knight and more left-field acts like James McNew’s Dump. What Another Man Spills wasn’t some simple genre exercise though – the album would be the jumping-off point for the next decade of Lambchop albums.

“The Saturday Option” was and still is a prime reminder that, no matter how many members are in Lambchop or what genres they’re currently fixated on, Wagner’s knack for turning a phrase will always be what catapults their music into such a welcome bizarro-world. Here you’ll find Wagner tossing around the singular form of buttocks, rhyming it with “rumpus,” mixing bleach with apricot and repeatedly doing some sort of shabby thing. But as the song lilts along from its merry-go-round country beginning, the ease and sincerity of his words become more and more evident; he’s not overthinking scenarios and ideas with the type of pretension that David Berman is often associated with, and he’s not trying to just use silly words, and he’s instead using the absolute right words for his mindset. Who knows what separating wood from screws and beef from stew has to do with doing shabby things, but with the amount of dry soul emanating from Wagner and his merry band, who gives a damn? – Kyle Wall

“Grumpus” from Nixon (2000)

Nixon is an odd record and certainly not Lambchop’s best. Nevertheless, it wasn’t so much a mid-career slump as a more defined journey into the band’s penchant for the Sound of Philadelphia’s darker soul undercurrents. Philly Soul’s stylistic tropes are painted in broad musical swaths across Nixon, from the smoothly ruddy horns of “The Old Gold Shoe” to the whooping falsetto vocals of “You Masculine You” and the sunny “What Else Could It Be?” Nixon also could be billed as a concept album – taking its name from the former President – though it’s best served as a sonic diversion versus a thematic one. Lambchop included more soul tracks than country, trading warbling guitar for rushes of ’70s-era TV licks and lush string accents.

“Grumpus” is arguably the funkiest of Kurt Wagner’s velvet-covered pimp-walk through alarmingly smooth Philly soul. Even though Lambchop had more than proven their experimental mettle over the years, “Grumpus” comes as a second-track surprise; those bendy guitar filters and half-buried gusts of baritone sax seem to hail from a very different time and place than much of the band’s prior discography. But that surprise is a pleasant one. Lambchop’s musicians have proven themselves to think profoundly outside of the traditional country box ­ and it’s in that bizarre musical place their recordings are truly special. – Michael Merline

“I Can Hardly Spell My Name” from Is a Woman (2002)


Is a Woman
is still perhaps Lambchop’s most polarizing record. A love-it-or-hate-it offering that found Wagner et al. forgoing the lavish instrumentation of previous album Nixon for a minimalist sound so subdued it bordered on funereal, the record marked- depending on whom you sided with- either a natural artistic progression or a descent into musical manic depression.

Like the rest of the album (and much of the Lambchop catalog), “I Can Hardly Spell My Name” features Wagner’s distinct sing-speak placed along lyrical ambiguities like, “A Siamese is lonely also/ And I’ve been waiting all my life/ In spite of this arrangement/ Moderation on vacation/ It’s time we all settled down.” Your guess is as good as mine as to what such open-ended poetics might actually mean.

But even while the lyrics remain shrouded in uncertainty, the song’s emotional effect is undeniable. Hopelessly sad and achingly gorgeous, the song has a nearly cherubic quality, driven home by its mournful and jazzy arrangement and the angelic na-na-nas that echo throughout the chorus. “This may not appeal to you/ But I can hardly spell my name,” Wagner practically whispers at one point, but he couldn’t be more wrong. Few Lambchop tunes have ever appealed to us more. -Marcus David

“The Gettysburg Address” from Treasure Chest of the Enemy (2002)

It’s worth remembering that Abraham Lincoln reportedly considered his Gettysburg address a failure and was prone to bouts of intense introspection throughout his life. It’s a character trait the protagonist of “Gettysburg Address” would likely appreciate. Appearing first on the tour-only CD-R Treasure Chest of the Enemy and again on 2006’s odds-and-ends collection The Decline of Country and Western Civilization, Pt. 2, “Gettysburg Address” is defined by similar strands of self-doubt and brooding. Whatever historical parallels a listener might try to find here, the song works just as well on a contemporary level, as Wagner provides the type of little lyrical details – hacked-up phlegm, full ashtrays and a sad-sack guy taking out the trash and unable to keep the days straight – that are the hallmarks of a master storyteller.

Built around an opening guitar and piano arrangement and a middle section that adds pedal steel and strings, the song also features some of Wagner’s most assured and clearly enunciated vocals. Anyone who complains that all Wagner does is croak and mumble should listen to this one, as his singing here is confident, especially in the song’s last verse. “Gettysburg Address” can be read in various ways, whether as a song rooted in American history, a song about the creative process and how a work of art is viewed by its author vs. the public or just as a simple lament about someone’s more desperate moments when one’s flaws are magnified and the personal becomes almost unbearably public. – Eric Dennis

“Steve McQueen” from Aw C’mon (2004)

For a band so adept at restlessly changing styles, Lambchop always seems able to nail quiet contemplation just as easily, even managing to imbue that tranquility with a little bit of their signature cheek. “Steve McQueen” has all the things you’d want out of this kind of song: wispy but pronounced strings, scattered clarion piano and little shreds of guitar, each briefly stepping to the fore before descending back to the bottom of the mix. All these elements serve as the stuffing for a consummately mature song, the kind of effortless late career exercise that Aw C’mon excels in. Kurt Wagner’s voice, which he’s developed as a great diverse instrument despite a lack of pure skill, ends up showing even more when it’s not being wrenched around. “Steve McQueen” gains from this vocal stability, choking all kinds of subtle emotion from the barebones reading of the lyrics, which say a lot through very little, most notably the softly heartbreaking “make sure we never/ Ever stand in each other’s way” that begins the last stanza. Like the rest of the album, it employs a 14-piece orchestra, which allows for a full, lush sound that still pays close attention to its individual parts, like the delicately plinking piano that lights up the song’s bridge. – Jesse Cataldo

“There’s Still Time” from No, You C’mon (2004)

As the equally consistent answer to sister-album Aw, C’mon, No,You C’mon is one of Lambchop’s more rewarding releases. The songs rate strangely even; the dynamics and song-to-song contrasts are there, but few tracks stand out as highlights; that quality is balanced – and generally outweighed by a complete lack of unworthy offerings. Both Aw and No, You C’mon are really a testament to Lambchop’s last decade of productivity.

“There’s Still Time” is a sedate ballad initially flush with strings, harmony vocals and gentle hits of the snare. Wagner’s mumbling delivery sits at a particularly low register and feels strangely sinister, and darkly cryptic lyrics don’t suggest that affect is just a vocal curiosity. Halfway through the track the lush orchestral swoons give away to a tension-filled sound, those same violins striking like daggers and fluttering nervously. Wagner’s voice begins to echo as he chants a gravely mantra of “Cover the floor/ Same as before” and the tune slowly fades to a unresolved finish. Here Lambchop plays competing elements off each other until those contrasts take on a formidable gravity, the track’s momentum relying on that combined effect that would be absent otherwise. That moment when the final refrain drops takes your stomach with it. Only a 13-piece band with such a extensive songwriting portfolio could make that bait-and-switch setup work to such great effect. – Michael Merline

“Prepared” from CoLAB (2005)

Lambchop going electronic is kind of like Perry Como singing death metal or the Three Tenors releasing a hip-hop record. It’s just plain weird, and though it’s been five years since the band teamed with electro whiz kids Hands Off Cuba to create CoLab, Lambchop fans may still be scratching their heads and wondering if the four-song EP was a serious attempt by the band to shed their lingering alt-country typecasting in favor of a bold new musical adventure or just an oddball practical joke.

In any case, it didn’t take long for the Spectrum Culture staff to agree that the standout track on this experimental EP is, well, the only song not polluted by blips, beeps and supersonic sound effects. It may be the victor by default, but “Prepared” would have been a contender for paramount track on just about any Lambchop record. Like so many other Wagner tunes, the song combines a mawkish but enchanting string and piano arrangement with lyrics whose meanings rest in the ear of the beholder. Cryptic lines like, “Voices cried in silence or crept stealthily away/ Left shimmering with rigid lips compressed” mix with (gasp!) nearly lovestruck sentiments like, “We are thrown out of our bedclothes/ Instead of slumbering away/ And a smile spreads like a sunbeam through your face” to create one of those delightfully ambiguous Lambchop tunes that both confuses and enchants. Throw in a grateful absence of awkward techno and “Prepared” stands as the runaway pick for the best track on perhaps the band’s most brain-bubbling record. – Marcus David

“Paperback Bible” from Damaged (2006)

By the time Damaged appeared in 2006, Lambchop had shed numerous subtle identities. After the band’s “difficult” stab at Prince-flavored rock in 2000 with Nixon, the one-two punch of Aw C’mon and No, You C’mon in 2004 and the strange experimentalism with electronica group Hands off Cuba for the CoLab EP, Damaged found Wagner returning to the obscure, stately songs that the band built its reputation on. Opening track, “Paperback Bible,” not only sets the tone for this intricate and quiet record, but stands out as its best track. Stretching for almost eight minutes, “Paperback Bible” once again features Wagner’s dense, murky ruminations that may seem little more than stream-of-conscious ramblings. However, looking for literal translation here is the wrong path to follow. Rather, as he lists the numerous things he’d like to buy, such as “a four month old rat terrier pup,” Wagner is creating a sensory world filled with specific objects that have lost their specific usage. However, by the end of the song, Wagner no longer wants to buy that “good, used paperbacked, living Bible,” but sell it. Somewhere between prom dresses and hand guns, something changes. Rumor has it that Wagner took the lyrics from the used items for sale on the back of newspapers, but deciphering what it is just really isn’t that important. – David Harris

“National Talk Like a Pirate Day” from OH(Ohio) (2009)

In a 2008 interview with NPR, Kurt Wagner delved into the inner workings of his songwriting and provided the host with an unusually telling anecdote. While trying to write “a folk song that is impossible to sing along to,” Wagner’s wife called to inform him that it was “National Talk Like a Pirate Day.” As he spoke with her, he noticed a picture of her right above his workspace, with her holding a record player and a little hockey game right behind her on the table. The song turned into one about his wife, that holiday, but more specifically, that moment.

That’s not to say Wagner’s initial goal wasn’t reached; its wordy webs of surrealist phrases (“It’s opinions disarrayed of might are drooped“) and situations (comparing a boy who forgets to shave to a girl who tames her dog) make for a fast-paced folk song that is incredibly difficult to sing along to or decipher. Wagner’s admission that the song was a result of allowing things outside of his brain to “be a part of the song itself” doesn’t cheapen its meaning but makes the listener step back and appreciate the true talent for words and images he possesses. By song’s end, there are – or at least seem to be – references to politics, education, romance, performing music and death, and the narrator’s viewpoint seems to juggle between Wagoner and his wife.

The song moves quicker than most in Lambchop’s catalog and compared with many of their jazz-leaning compositions, “National Talk Like a Pirate Day” is a pretty simple folk song; if it had a steady chorus and dumbed-down lyrics it could’ve maybe emerged as a crossover hit of some sort. But Wagner has no interest in any of that. Like other pillars of the vast Lambchop catalog, the balance of biting wit, dry humor and sweet sincerity, sometimes all at once in a line like, “It’s a wonder you can disregard at all,” takes “National Talk Like a Pirate Day” to the top of OH (Ohio). – Kyle Wall

“Gone Tomorrow” from Mr. M (2012)

Mr. M finds Lambchop’s methods growing increasingly complex, straying further from Kurt Wagner’s country roots into the realms of big-band jazz and sweeping strings, but the prevailing style is still concrete, and a big, swaying track like “Gone Tomorrow” sums it up perfectly. The song is consistently smart, a tad sentimental, and quietly daring, not least for the way it’s split into two discrete halves. This is key because Wagner, while a as poetic and imaginative a songwriter as ever, seems more and more concerned with the musical component beyond his words. By separating those lyrical and musical concerns “Gone Tomorrow” becomes two songs bundled together. The first is a piano-tinged reminisce, full of odd but tactile language (“the wine tasted like sunshine in basement”). This goes on for about three minutes, developing along with an increasingly blustery string progression, before the words drop out. Here the track undergoes an odd transformation, transitioning to an instrumental section that threatens a close but keeps rolling on. After two minutes there’s another distinct change, with the instruments settling into a hypnotic, repetitive raga. By the time it finally ends, near the seven minute mark, the song has demonstrably transformed several times, ending up somewhere completely opposite but also expressively similar to where it began, again highlighting the wit and wonder of Wagner’s work, which remains both lyrically and musically explorative. -Jesse Cataldo

One Comment

  1. Andrew

    July 21, 2018 at 3:41 am

    Any clue as to what Wagner was writing about in that song? I’d love to know what he was trying to tell lyrically…. There are subtle references to water and wine within the song, and the elements of fire and water… Perhaps it has something to do with duality? Religion? Being torn between religious beliefs and alternate views? Would love to hear what Wagner has to say about his word choices in that song. It’s a haunting and beautiful melody..

    Reply

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