Duke University’s Baldwin Auditorium is built for reverence. Following a full refurbishment last year, it holds an audience of 615 on two levels, under a vaunting Georgian Revival dome. Stained wood sound panels abound, designed to complement the string quartets, jazz combos and exotic-instrument masters that comprise a typical performance season. But in mid July, a capacity crowd cheered eagerly as seven quiet men from Nashville emerged onstage to play a 14-year-old indie rock album that was never a hit, and which remains relatively obscure to this day.
Lambchop isn’t the first band you’d expect to undertake one of those instant-nostalgia, classic-album-in-full shows — and in a chamber music hall no less. The Duke gig kicked off Merge 25, an anniversary celebration for the famed Chapel Hill label that has released every note of Lambchop’s music in America, including Nixon, the stunningly ambitious album they were performing that night. Though Lambchop is the longest-running Merge Records act (besides Superchunk, whose members founded the label), they’ve never been the most visible or hyped band on the roster, nor have they made the equivalent of 69 Love Songs, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, or any of the label’s many other genre totems.
Zealots would argue that Lambchop has released four or five albums that are as fiercely original and ambitious as those two, Nixon certainly among them. And 55-year-old commandant Kurt Wagner, Lambchop’s sole remaining original member, is every bit as musically visionary as Stephin Merritt or Jeff Mangum. Few other indie bands have enjoyed such steadfast critical acclaim, or remained so prolific and interesting, since the early ’90s. So for years now, the same back-handed question has haunted any conversation about Lambchop: Why don’t more people know about them?
As the lights dimmed, the crowd hushed and the cavernous stage was bathed in a deep blue, the band eased into “The Old Gold Shoe,” Nixon‘s shimmering and languorous opening track. Live or on record, it’s a gorgeous, flowing song, one that embodies the Lambchop aesthetic: slow, quiet, mystifying, unrepentantly gentle but never solemn. It’s like a Stax song slowed to half speed, with lyrics by the poet John Ashbery.
Over the years, Lambchop has often swelled to 12 or more people at any given time, bringing a chaotic, ramshackle energy to Wagner’s stately songs. For their first few records — I Hope You’re Sitting Down/Jack’s Tulips (1994), How I Quit Smoking (1995), plus the EP Hank (1996) — Lambchop specialized in a kind of crawling, atmospheric pseudo-country. On those records, plus numerous 7-inches, the band was a mercurial thing: Wagner’s unassuming voice and guitar sat at the center, surrounded by a swirl of brushed drums, pedal steel, muted trumpet, clarinet, junkyard percussion and white noise. As an art-school student in Memphis in the late ’70s, Wagner joined a band that regularly opened for Tav Falco’s anarchic Panther Burns, featuring Alex Chilton on guitar. The earliest Lambchop recordings have that same spirit of communal cacophony. Around this time they described themselves as “Nashville’s Most Fucked-Up Country Band,” a title that they’ve never quite shed.
“We were being facetious at the beginning, being from Nashville and all,” Wagner told me in conversation before the Duke show. “And we figured that people would listen to our music and realize, ‘That’s not true.’ We didn’t realize that would be something that would continue to haunt us.”
Thriller, their weirdest and greatest record, released in 1997, sounds like an attempt to bury that reputation once and for all. Thriller has only eight songs, one of which is a five-minute wash of guitar feedback and three of which are covers of another undersung Merge act, East River Pipe. The originals bear confrontational titles like “My Face Your Ass” and “Your Fucking Sunny Day,” belying the fact that these are some of Wagner’s richest, warmest songs. The arrangements are filled with ghostly background vocals and aggressive horns. On “Sunny Day” and “Hey Where’s Your Girl,” each a rave-up worthy of Wilson Pickett or Rufus Thomas, Lambchop finally revealed themselves as the greatest soul band in rock. You’d be hard pressed to think of a less fashionable title in 1997.
But from that point forward, those laconic tempos began to swing, the pedal steel began to fade, and Lambchop shed their back-porch-art-school vibe in favor of a smoother, more achingly beautiful sound full of piano and tremolo guitar. For their next album, What Another Man Spills, they began working with Nashville producer Mark Nevers, who had engineered records for Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn. “Each time, Nevers would try and make us sound better,” Wagner told me. “And bigger.” They’d never sounded bigger than “Give Me Your Love (Love Song),” a faithful Curtis Mayfield cover from Spills that features a mammoth bass line and full string section.
Far from an R&B carpetbagger, Wagner grew up listening to John Richbourg, a Nashville DJ and producer who specialized in Music City’s little-known soul scene. Richbourg’s nighttime show on WLAC ran from the ’40s into the ’80s, and helped popularize soul music throughout the South. The earliest Lambchop lineups were split evenly between punk and country aficionados, but the Dixie-soul sound was a touchstone for everyone. Emboldened by the experience of making “Give Me Your Love,” and with their ranks commonly swelling past 10 band members onstage at any given show, they set out to make exactly that kind of record.
Nixon sounds extravagant, even by Lambchop’s widescreen standards. The songs are flamboyant, even funky. It overflows with a 16-piece string section, horns, vibraphone and Wagner’s heroic falsetto. These days Wagner can no longer summon it, likely thanks to the cigarettes that are still as crucial to his image as his ever-present “CO-OP FEEDS” trucker hat. At Baldwin, he sang halfway between a croak and a croon, compensating deftly by reorganizing his lines and syllables like Thelonius Monk. Most of the current band has played together since 2006, and Paul Niehaus, now an accomplished session pedal steel guitarist, has rejoined after anchoring the earliest lineup.
This is the stately, polished version of the band that emerged in Nixon‘s wake. They released Is a Woman, which is as spare and gentle as Nixon is overwhelming, in 2002. Two years later they released Aw C’Mon and No You C’Mon simultaneously, the first Lambchop records that sound like the work of a real band rather than a project. There are no art-school affectations at all; this is expertly played, approachable music that sounds like it could have been made in 1971.
In the decade since, Wagner has rarely written a song that would disrupt a person’s sleep, though there are examples on Damaged (2006), OH (Ohio) (2009), and Mr. M (2012) of that fragile, heavy sway that Lambchop mastered from the start. And they remain adventurous; no contemporary writer channels late-Capitol-era Sinatra so well as Wagner does on Mr. M‘s “If Not I’ll Just Die,” or recreates the rise-and-fall drama of the classic Nashville Sound as cannily as he does on “Sharing a Gibson With Martin Luther King, Jr.,” from OH (Ohio) . It’s untrendy stuff, but the conviction of it is inspiring. What a thing for this vision to have lasted twenty continuous years, to have evolved this thoroughly.
Plus, five years ago, at XX Merge, they showed they could still rip. For that 2009 set, they made a rare return to the bulk version of Lambchop, including horns and ambient noise machines and old members like bassist Marc Trovillion, the relatively untrained friends who gave the band its initial freewheeling character. (“There was a broad range of skill in the group” back then, Wagner told me with a diplomatic laugh.) The show was later issued by Merge as a live album and concert film, but not before a stunned Grayson Haver Currin concluded his festival report by saying, “We’ve got five years from right now to reconsider Lambchop. Merge XXV is coming, but not soon enough.”
During the intervening five years, Trovillion died of a heart attack and honorary member Vic Chesnutt — whose artwork graced the cover of What Another Man Spills, and whose backing band on The Salesman and Bernadette is made entirely of Lambchop members — committed suicide. Mr. M was dedicated to Chesnutt, but Trovillion’s more recent death truly shook Wagner. It was only in his memory that Wagner consented to perform Nixon for Merge 25, after spending some rare time with the album in order to remaster it for a belated vinyl release earlier this year. The shows (he agreed to others in Nashville, Chicago, and London) are primarily “a way of remembering” the friend he called Buddy T, according to Wagner.
Perhaps those difficult losses account for Lambchop’s seemingly permanent quiet phase, as exhibited by their tender reinvention of Nixon‘s violent closer, “The Butcher Boy,” in the Baldwin Auditorium. When the last chord rang, the house lights went down and the band left the stage, the ovation much louder than anything they’d played. When they reemerged minutes later, Wagner addressed the crowd without the microphone.
He wanted us to dance like Buddy T, and showed us his friend’s signature giddy-up thumb motion. He wanted us to know how much he appreciated Merge’s support and our excitement. The he sat back down, softly counted the band in, and led them through a gentle “Give Me Your Love.” They no longer sounded like a soul band. They sounded like Lambchop. The dome glowed blue.