In the face of the commercially lucrative garage-rock revival and the continuing reign of nu-metal that dominated what we were increasingly being compelled to call ‘alternative rock’ at the turn of the millennium, one particularly splendid album that ticked neither box passed quietly under the mainstream radar when released a few days in to February 2000. Nixon, the fifth studio album by Nashville-based band Lambchop, stood quietly and magnificently apart from prevailing trends and established them as one of America’s most acclaimed independent rock acts, a reputation that remains twenty years later.
nominally rooted in the alternative rock scene and taking cues from country, in
a style that eventually earned the broad journalistic shorthand ‘countrypolitan’,
the band’s music has slowly shifted over the years and pivoted to encompass influences
of soul, post-rock and lounge at the behest of their founder and sole constant
member, singer Kurt Wagner. In fact, it’s always worked against Lambchop that
they’ve been pigeonholed as ‘country’ – their music is far less populist than
conventional country music, shyer and more self-deprecating, not given to
grandstanding. But the connection to the music of their hometown of Nashville
is nevertheless there, insofar as Wagner finds his muse in the old-fashioned,
the derelict and forgotten. This was an art that he absolutely perfected with Nixon.
Lambchop – An Introduction
their first album as Lambchop back in 1994, but with a previous life as
Posterchild dating the group even further back to 1986, Wagner was already an
old hand by the time that Nixon was released. Named cryptically after
the disgraced former US president, for which no overarching concept is immediately
apparent in the music despite a recommended reading list concerning old Tricky
Dick himself in the liner notes, Nixon is near-peerless masterclass in
the art of understatement.
with the softly brushed snare drums and shuffling bass and guitars of ‘The Old Gold Shoe’, a shimmering
hybrid of chamber-pop and country that feels like the imaginary soundtrack to
some grand, dusty and deserted ballroom from a different age, Nixon allures
and coaxes the listener into its charms without forcing itself on you. ‘Nashville Parent’ is like
something from a prime-time Isaac Hayes album, a lavish yet sparsely arranged
piece featuring emotional heaves and swells reminiscent of Seventies soul,
while ‘The Book I Haven’t Read’
(which contains a writing credit for Curtis Mayfield) features skyscraping
strings that carry the melody and harmony.
are observational and casually descriptive, delivered in a quiet half-sung,
half-spoken style that perfectly complements the music in which it’s embedded. Expressed
though character studies, of nuisance neighbours, gangs of kids and gentle afternoons
on porches – the most beautiful of which is the pining lap-steel guitar that
underpins ‘The Distance From Her
To There’ – Wagner and Lambchop paint a lightly surrealist and occasionally
humorous portrait of southern American life, projecting mystery onto the
mundane and using them as springboards for brief flights of fancy and
concluding that, despite the many things wrong with it and the people who
populate it, the world is a pretty great place.
The beatific, radiant single ‘Up With People’ underscores that conclusion, and is also about as lively as Nixon gets. Powering gently yet inexorably along with its rolling bassline and muted handclaps, its wonderfully warm blasts of horns and gospel choir backdrop echo Wagner’s ambiguous worldview, with the cleverly split line “we are screwing / up our lives today” nailing the point.
failed to make much impression in their homeland, Nixon was hailed in
the British press and found a small but dedicated audience. Lambchop sold out
the 2,500-capacity Royal Festival Hall the following year, and Zero 7’s blissed-out remix of ‘Up With
People’ even registered in the lower end of the UK Singles Chart. Kurt Wagner
has never quite hit the same heights since, taking an abrupt left-turn with
2002’s austere follow-up Is A
Woman, but Lambchop have frequently released works of similar beauty
and depth, most recently 2016’s FLOTUS and
last year’s This (Is What I
Wanted To Tell You). However, when you’ve released an album as confounding
yet paradoxically complete and understated as Nixon, you earn the right
to mess around with audience’s expectations. While it didn’t fit in with any
contemporary rock narrative, it’s exactly the kind of timeless art that is always
worthy of attention.
Listen to Nixon by Lambchop here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
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Influenced by: The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Gram Parsons, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Charles Bradley, Grandaddy, Sparklehorse, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy
Tags: 20 years old, 20th anniversary, Alex McManus, Allen Lowrey, C Scott Chase, classic album, cult '00s, Deanna Varagona, Ed Biggs, John Delworth, Jonathan Marx, Kurt Wagner, Lambchop, Marc Trovillion, Mark Nevers, Matt Swanson, Merge, Nixon, Paul Burch, Paul Niehaus, Tony Crow
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