Mr. M

Of their new record Mr. M, the ever-present daddy of Lambchop, Kurt Wagner, had this to say: "It was a studio creation, not a type of recording based on band performance, and this was a radical approach for us. I felt Lambchop had one more good record in us, and this time I was going to do things as directly and true to my desires as possible."

So Lambchop, after nearly 20 years making music under the name, have gone the way of most bands that last long enough and have migrated to the studio. The record, born in part of Wagner’s painting, we’re told – the front cover is one of his – is as much a test of the link between music and image as it is the attempt to create, in the words of Lambchop sometime-member Mark Nevers, an album with a "’psycha-Sinatra’ sound, one that involved the arranging of strings and other sounds in a more open and yet complex way."

And Lambchop do imagery well. They always have. When the swirling, sentimental strings of ‘If Not I’ll Just Die’ bring the album in, Wagner sets a scene that’s not only easy to picture but subsumes the music he’s singing that picture alongside. "Don’t know what the fuck they talk about: maybe blowing kisses," he begins, the narrator a cool and detached outsider. Then the strings we’re hearing play under this soundtrack of events. "Grandpa’s coughing in the kitchen but the strings sound good – maybe add some flute."

But it is debateable whether the link between the album and these paintings, even if it’s being marketed as such, is strong. Eleven dense, thick-black and soft grey images from Wagner’s Beautillion Militaire 2000 series accompany the LP; but the lush strings and twinkling guitars of Mr. M don’t sound thick, or without colour, at all.

An art school student long before he embodied Lambchop, Wagner recently told The Guardian that he "truly intended on just being content being a painter," that, of music, he had at that time "never looked at it as an end to my creative thing". If that’s true, it’s all the more reason to doubt a genuine aesthetic analogousness between the paintings and Mr. M. Wagner seems to conceive of them separately, and if he’d been content to be just a painter he certainly isn’t content being labelled just a musician – and these paintings are interesting as examples of another facet of an interesting man than as testaments to how image can feed into sound. There may be a personal link there, but in terms of visual and aural aesthetic, the link isn’t so clear.

For example ‘Gone Tomorrow’, the track you’d give people if you wanted to show off as well as boil down Mr. M. It’s got the feel of a single. The poppy-bounce of its softly depressed piano chords and its sweet-picked guitar, are not of a black, oil pastel quality. Wagner’s paintings, based on newspaper clippings and old photographs, treat the same subject matter of nostalgia, sentimentalism, and memory: but to say that Mr. M is of like-style because it is of like-mind is false, if only because, with that line "the strings sound good – maybe add some flute", Lambchop bring a self-reflexivity to the LP that isn’t there in the paintings. In fact these sounds, if they’re anything in visual terms, fall somewhere between a roll of film and a colourscape.

That sense of a glistening, shiny array of colour comes, perhaps, from the polish of the studio, and being conceived of as a studio album. And what Wagner’s paintings and Mr. M share – again the clarity of the recording helps this feeling – is impressionism. It’s a word that applies to the warm shade of tones that comes out of the production on ‘Gone Tomorrow’ as well as the brilliantly named ‘The Good Life (is wasted)’, as well as ‘Betty’s Overture’, which continue and expand the feel of ‘Gone Tomorrow’ and share similar arrangement. It’s a word that applies to the wrenching strings of the seven-minute long, tonally indulgent ‘Mr. Met’; that applies to the horizontal drone behind ‘Kind Of’; that applies to the strings and female hum of album closer ‘Never My Love’, an arrangement which brings the album into a loop, sharing evocations with ‘If Not I’ll Just Die’.

It’s a depth of sound, a deep sound-colour. Lambchop has never released music that tries to bombard you with gimmicks or overwhelm you with excitement and Mr. M is no different. Rather it washes you in sound, and if you let that sound wash over you, what it does is exquisite. But without opening up to the stream, it might just drain away.

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