There’s something quite restrained about Mr. M, the 11th album to come from the Lambchop stable. A self-confessed ‘indirect communicator’ Kurt Wagner drip feeds us his feelings: his inimitable voice is a fractured gravelly croon which is shored up by sweeping and soaring strings thanks to producer and band member Mark Nevers.
It’s no wonder that Wagner needs support: his good friend and collaborator Vic Chesnutt passed away in 2009 and this album is dedicated to him. Both Wagner and Chesnutt were part of the new breed of alt-country American singer-songwriters in the mid-nineties. Lambchop (with various line-ups) has been going ever since.
Wagner was struck dumb by his friend’s death and so this collection of songs came slowly, and no doubt painfully, whilst he was in studio pursuing his other love – painting. The sombre, squeezed-out feeling of Wagner’s voice becomes cushioned by a soothing sonic landscape which serves to paper over the cracks, a balm to a broken soul.
This album then, has two very different elements complimenting each other. The control and obliqueness of the lyrics is part of a theme running throughout.
Even the title Mr.M has a certain mystery, referring to a newspaper article Wagner saw about male debutantes. Originally he wanted to call it Mr. Met (as in just met) but it was shortened. And for a while there, Wagner became almost anonymous too, a shadow of himself whilst he figured out his next move.
In antithesis, the music is full of bravado and emotion. In ‘Gone Tomorrow’ there is a long musical close with pianos, strings and drums which roll and loop on their own journey before falling away abruptly. ‘Mr. Met’ feels very matter of fact initially, the rhythm of the bass steady, deep and measured before fast-moving drum patterns and a female chorus add texture and pace. As well as their signature alt-country style, ‘Gar’ for example, moves into Easy Listening territory. It is only when we get to ‘Nice Without Mercy’ that the pace slows almost to a standstill to give space to Wagner’s brief sketches of vast skies, sunsets and country churches.
So whilst this album is a low-key elegiac affair the emotion is revealed in the music. It may be understated but it’s far from underwhelming.
Review by Selina Ream