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The Decline of Country & Western Civilization Part II: The Woodwind Years

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Album Review

Lambchop is a group that takes an obvious pride in working on a grand scale — this is a band that's swelled to as many as 16 members at times and in 2004 released two full-length albums on the same day — so it should come as no surprise that they've come up with more worthwhile material than they've found room for on their LPs. The Decline of Country & Western Civilization, Pt. 2: The Woodwind Years compiles 18 performances that otherwise haven't appeared on a Lambchop album: compilation appearances, B-sides, contributions to split singles, unreleased alternate takes, and one brand new number, "Gettysburg Address." No one familiar with Lambchop should be surprised that this compilation reflects the stylistic shape-sifting that's part of the group's raison d'etre; while the witty but cryptic lyrics and evocatively murmured vocals of leader Kurt Wagner are the glue that holds this set together, musically this disc runs the gamut from thundering guitar-powered rock enriched with horns and steel guitar ("The Scary Caroler"), the jazzy atonalities of "Burly and Johnson," and the muted trumpets and electronic treatments of "Two Kittens Don't Make a Puppy" to the shambolic but easygoing drift of "Ovary Eyes" and the white-bread soul strut of "Alumni Lawn." About the only thing that unites this stuff is that Lambchop is going to do what they want to do, and it's always going to be at least interesting, while the best music is wildly evocative and truly moving stuff. However, given the scattershot nature in which this was recorded, The Decline of Country & Western Civilization isn't especially cohesive, and a few tunes were clearly saved for B-sides because they weren't quite A-list material. Still, anyone who already loves Lambchop will find several reminders of why on this collection, and it'll tide over fans until Wagner and Company release their next major statement.

Customer Reviews

Like Dusting Off a Box of 78s You Found in Someone's Attic

About halfway through The Decline of Country and Western Civilization, Part II: The Woodwind Years, "Alumni Lawn" sidles in with its burpy organ and easygoing clarinet, functioning as an example of a heretofore unrealized genre - geriatric lounge pop. It's not just reminiscent of soft radio pop of the '40s or '50s, but rather, it's that sound being reapproached now, a half century later. In my estimation, the only thing that kept this lovely nugget from burning up the nursing home hit parade is Kurt Wagner's lyrics, which, let's face it, are a beast that cannot be tamed. This is the rub with Lambchop. Their genre-bending ways are always well-conceived and executed, yet never pitched toward an audience that will easily love those sounds. Instead, they rely on the schmaltzy hipster: the one who loves Burt Bacharach, Conway Twitty, and Tom Waits just as much as Sonic Youth, Stereolab, and The High Llamas - in other words, as refined a bunch of pop dirtbags as possible. As long as I live, I can't imagine ever finding Kurt Wagner's voice anything short of bewitching. It's gravelly texture is increasing pleasing - enough so that by the end of the record, you want ot hear it again. Granted it's a love-or-hate voice like those of Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, so some will never be as enamored as I am. I'm just glad that I'm one of the fortunate ones. Of course, if the songs themselves weren't constructed and arranged so beautifully by the extremely talented and malleable ensemble of up to 18 musicians, Wagner's voice might never find any audience. And it is the versatility of the ensemble that is showcased with this collection and its predecessor, Tools in the Dryer. Unlike that album, The Decline reviews a briefer span of time, but the range of experimentation is no less broad. From the aforementioned schmaltz pop to the faux drum and bass of "Two Kittens Don't Make A Puppy," I was constantly reminded of the apparent ease with which Lambchop assumes so many musical identities. The early alternate versions of a few of the tracks from Nixon and Thriller beautifully highlight how the songs can work in a barer setting while simultaneously illuminating how much the careful arrangements ultimately enhance them. For someone new to Lambchop, I might suggest starting with one of their more polished studio efforts, but for those who want an overview or for those who already fallen under Wagner & Co.'s spell, this is some welcome insight into their achievements and processes. Hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Biography

Formed: 1993 in Nashville, TN

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '90s, '00s, '10s

Touted as "Nashville's most f*cked-up country band" by their label Merge Records, Lambchop was arguably the most consistently brilliant and unique American group to emerge during the 1990s. Their unclassifiable hybrid of country, soul, jazz, and avant-garde noise seemed at one time or another to drink from every conceivable tributary of contemporary music, its Baroque beauty all held together by the surreal lyrical wit and droll vocal presence of frontman Kurt Wagner. Although Lambchop's ever-rotating...
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The Decline of Country & Western Civilization Part II: The Woodwind Years, Lambchop
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