September 7, 2006

Silence in Stereo

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Lambchop has waxed and waned over the years, from four to twenty-one members depending on which of their ten albums you listen to. Here, a seventeen-member band, replete with horns, synths, and strings, orbits Kurt Wagner. Surprisingly enough, the cuts – even when swollen with a string triad – retain a surprising grace. The effect of such a well-stocked band is actually calming, almost sopoforic. And after twenty years of recording, any atonal qualities or jarring effects seem to have been eliminated from Wagner’s music, ironed right out.
We are left with a drifting, solitary iceberg of an album. On a surface level, it seems forgettable and tiny. If I heard it on a tinny car radio or out of a pair of laptop speakers, I wouldn’t make it through a single song. The strings’ crescendo seems too refined; the chords sound too harmonic, the piano twinkles too gently. From a distance, it’s all vanilla, smooth jazz and lounging country, the kind of adult contemporary tracks that make me wonder what the hell happens to the ears of middle-aged people.
But, and there is a but, if you curl up with this album and a pair of big fat stereo headphones, giving yourself an hour or two to really get into it, the vastness and beauty of the venture comes out. The music deepens into sedate dignity. It ripples and dissipates, sincere, inaccessible but still wonderful. There isn’t much emotional variety, mostly the sort of quiet melancholy that seems married to country songs, and this emotional stability seems well-matched by the tender arrangements. Wagner is singing the charms of domestic life. These are daily sights and memories that seem banal from a distance but possess a delicate beauty.
The album has the gentleness of Sufjan Stevens without his pop sensibility. It’s too inwards-directed and unfazed by trends to be cool, much like the coke-bottle spectacled Wagner himself. This is a deeply solitary album, the type of music that suffers from being easy to gloss over. After a couple listens, if you start relating to Wagner’s unconventional style, this inner monologue could bloom into a vast floating world. Look no further for a glimpse of a humble, preoccupied life, the kind of life that probably waits for all of us twenty-five years from now. Damaged, at its best moments, evokes an ideal and even stunning panorama.