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Lambchop: Showtunes

And so, the tides within Lambchop continue to turn at a fascinating pace. You’d need the palantir of Saruman to have predicted the way it has happened — it was never all at once, and it has only ever felt predictable once we’ve been gifted with a new album. Showtunes isn’t any different. 2019’s This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) isn’t an album that one would necessarily “predict” listening to 2016’s FLOTUS, but in hindsight, it makes perfect sense. And so, listening to last year’s covers record TRIP, you can’t quite see the path forward in the same way that you can see it illuminated behind you when listening to their newest, Showtunes.

If you’ve had trouble with the smoothness that has permeated the gently cantankerous, behatted frontperson Kurt Wagner’s band over the last few album cycles, there isn’t anything about Showtunes that will sway you. If anything does, it’ll be the fact that it’s a brief outing — not counting TRIP, Showtunes is the band’s quickest record since 1997’s Thriller, and even that one has a couple extra minutes on this one. Coming in at just 31 minutes, Showtunes can feel insubstantial at first listen — and, maybe, it is. But before we dive into what it is, let’s examine the pieces: we, of course, have Wagner front and center, and he provides the first wrinkle — he isn’t playing guitar on this album. This isn’t to say the instrument has no place on Showtunes; here, Wagner plays guitar compositions that have been converted and polished for a MIDI keyboard, which you hear as the unsurprisingly bizarre piano work all over the album. These songs were supposed to be debuted live at Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires festival with Andrew Broder of Fog and Ryan Olson of Vernon side project Gayngs — thanks to our friend Covid, though, instead we get James McNew of Yo La Tengo on double bass and horns by Vernon (and many, many others) compatriot CJ Camerieri, all recorded remotely. What does Showtunes look like in the Berenstein universe, where we were never forced into plague isolation? We’ll certainly never know, but this doesn’t make this universe’s Lambchop record any less worthwhile.

As always, Showtunes shows you where you’ll be spending your time right at the jump. Opener “A Chef’s Kiss” is built around tentative piano twinkles and quiet horns, and Kurt Wagner’s voice — now, again, de-autotuned — begins to take shaky baby deer-like steps through it. No matter his surroundings or the treatment of his voice, his lyrics always cause twinge in the same way an inside joke you know you forgot — like a phantom memory shared between him and his listener. In a vacuum, “It took ’til death to tell your story/ Nothing was wasted on us all/ If sunlight were our best disinfectant/ And our years will burn with night’s fall” sounds like it can mean everything or nothing at all, but it still has the power to get you choked up if you’re not careful. This record sees Wagner’s songwriting used sparsely — songs like “Unknown Man” and “Drop C” lean on scattered imagery and repetition (good luck getting Wagner crooning “Like somebody’s mother you sang the blues” out of your head this year), and two songs are purely instrumental. Those who love him at his most lyrically wandering will love “Blue Leo” and closer “The Last Benedict,” the latter of which comes correct with this killer stanza: “And I pretend I hear an ocean/ And I can almost smell the sea/ Let’s say that writer was an asshole/ Let’s just say that asshole wasn’t me.”

Much of Showtunes exists in the lush quiet created by “A Chef’s Kiss.” Even on songs like “Papa Was a Rolling Stone Journalist,” which swells with almost-triumphant horns, there’s still a hush presiding over these tracks. At first, it can feel like you’re constantly waiting for songs to snap together, but Wagner is too much of a trickster for that — past of the joy is how long he and his band are able to get away with stringing us along. This method of creation gives Showtunes a strange, incomplete feeling at times, his own voice serving as the only piece of the puzzle that feels fully formed at all times. This isn’t to say the piano or horn bits — or the album as a whole — are half-baked. It’s the exact opposite, truly; he’s so sure of his creative vision that he’s able to make an album that would sound half-finished and insubstantial in the hands of another but sounds like another winning jaunt whose only crime is brevity.

That can come at a small cost, though, and it’s impossible to get around the fact that we should get more from Showtunes, if only a couple more songs — with the exception of the seven-minute “Fuku” (co-written by German producer Twit One, who was also meant to be part of the Showtunes live debut), every song here falls in the two-to-four minute range. Compare that to This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You), where only two songs fall under the five-minute mark, or FLOTUS, which was bookended by two 10+ minute masterworks. Would these songs benefit from getting more time to breathe? Would “Papa Was a Rolling Stone Journalist” be a better song if it lasted longer than two minutes and one second? Wagner has been doing this long enough that long-time fans can totally trust him to follow his own artistic vision, but when an excellent track like “Blue Leo” is only given a three-minute window, it’s easy to find yourself mentally paraphrasing Roger Ebert: “No good song is too long and no bad song is short enough.” We get nothing but good songs here, each of which presents us with proof that the first part of that sentiment is entirely correct.

After a few quick trips through Showtunes, its strong suit becomes clear: it’s as impossible as the meatballs referenced here to know where you stand with it. It’s a perplexing record from a perplexing band, and a record that feels — all at once — scattershot, incomplete, and perfectly executed. It never feels like it really gets going, but rewards you for being willing to hang out for half an hour in what occasionally feels like an aural lobby. Is every Lambchop fan going to enjoy this album? Almost certainly not, but for those who have stuck around this long, the existence of an album this puzzling should make perfect sense.

On the 16th album by what once was Nashville’s most fucked-up country band, frontperson/hat enthusiast Kurt Wagner makes the most of Covid distance with a beautiful, if too-brief, experiment in gentleness and guitarlessness.
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