Consistently labelled as an alt-country band throughout their thirty-year career, the ever-changing Kurt Wagner-led Nashville collective have long evolved beyond their traditional county roots into a soulful hybrid of Americana, chamber pop, R&B, jazz and art rock. Even when presented with Wagner’s willingness to experiment, their previous album FLOTUS still came as a surprise to many. Incorporating electronic sounds and processed vocals for the first time on a Lambchop record (he had recently experimented with electronics on his side project HeCTA), it was done in a typically subtle and tasteful way and was widely considered to be a late career highlight.
Their thirteenth album to date, This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) largely continues down the same electronic-tinged country-soul path they set off on with FLOTUS. Making a few tweaks along the way it edges more in the jazz-inspired direction of late Talk Talk, particularly on its second half. Featuring a breezy blend of organic and electronic instrumentation, much like its predecessor This… revolves around the core grouping of Wagner on vocals, Tony Crow on piano and Matt Swanson on bass. The biggest change on This… comes in the form of additional input from Matthew McCaughan on electronics and percussion who adds a different dimension to the album. Known for his work with Bon Iver and Hiss Golden Messenger, McCaughan also acts as producer and co-writer alongside Wagner.
Aside from its mildly psychedelic lead single ‘Everything For You’ there are fewer moments which standout instantly than there were on FLOTUS, with This… being a much more dreamy and free flowing affair overall. Opener ‘The New Isn’t So You Anymore’ finds Wagner crooning about the state of American politics and how he’s “got many reasons to shut down the planet for a while” over mellow arrangements which also include some harmonica by Nashville veteran and Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Charlie McCoy. McCaughan’s contribution can also be heard bubbling underneath throughout, coming to surface during its short ambient outro.
The subtle beauty of This… reveals itself more slowly than its predecessor, with repeated listens required to fully appreciate it. The possible influence of Talk Talk pops up on the second half of the album, with ‘This Is What I Wanted to Tell You’ taking on a decidedly darker, more jazzy tone. The first track Wagner and McCaughan worked together on for the album, it also features some trumpet from Jacob Valenzuela, best known for his work with Calexico. Talk Talk again comes to mind upon hearing the pitch changing synth line on ‘The December-ish You’, a track that finds Wagner returning to the subject of American politics with lines like “in the course of the night the weather has changed“.
America’s messy politics are also alluded to on its longest track ‘The Air Is Heavy and I Should Be Listening to You’, with Wagner calling the current situation “the new not normal“. The same track also finds Wagner “in a Mexican restaurant bar watching surfing and it’s amazing“, perhaps just happy to escape twenty-four hour rolling news coverage in the age of Trump. This… closes with its shortest and simplest track ‘Flower’ which sees the return of Wagner’s clean vocals for the first time since 2012’s Mr. M, appearing alongside McCoy’s harmonica and some finger picked acoustic guitar.
Yet another great release from one of the most consistently interesting bands around, one which will leave many hoping that Wagner’s work with McCaughan will continue on album number fourteen.
This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) is available 22nd March via City Slang