Lambchop: Nixon (Merge Records)

lambchop nixon

To many people’s great surprise, Lambchop’s fifth album, Nixon, was a surprise European hit. In many ways it was a grand departure from the band’s previous work; lush and supple, much less “country” and much more R&B in nature, the album seamlessly flows from start to finish in one continuous groove. This was a newer, bigger (both sonically and physically) Lambchop, one that was ready to conquer the world, But it wasn’t necessarily unexpected. Hints had come along the way. Thriller had the upbeat sunny, funny soul of “Your Fucking Sunny Day,” and their previous album, What Another Man Spills, contained a killer cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Give Me Your Love.”

Nixon relies on the sound of 1970s soul, and is all the better for it. String arrangements found on songs like “You Masculine You” and “What Else Could It Be?” sound like time-machined stolen productions by Gamble & Huff, Tom Moulton, or The Salsoul Orchestra. What’s more, when one scrapes the surface away, one finds that it’s a pretty straightforward soul record masquerading as something unclassifiable–and that’s not a bad thing. “Up With People,” the album’s single, still feels as fresh and weirdly wonderful as it did fourteen years ago.

This expanded edition–released in conjunction with Merge Records’ silver anniversary–contains a bonus disc, entitled How I Met Cat Power. It’s a live radio performance, and  it’s the polar opposite of Nixon in that it’s just Kurt Wagner alone in the studio. To hear four of the album’s five key songs stripped of their orchestrated sheen is startling. Furthermore, it shows that one of the album’s most notable characteristics–Wagner’s falsetto–was no mere fluke or studio concoction. Listening to “What Could It Be,” which is entirely falsetto, is both impressive and disturbing–you wonder when his voice is gonna give out.

For a study in contrast, listen to the live versions next to the album versions. You’ll be impressed and amazed. Doing so helps to accentuate the intricacies of Nixon, whilst highlighting just how powerful a soul singer Mr. Kurt Wagner had become. Whilst subsequent Lambchop albums have carried on Nixon’s legacy, its grand heights have never been bested. (Also recommended–though not included in this set–is the contemporaneous tour-only EP The Queen’s Royal Trimma, which captures Lambchop on stage in England, and adds another depth of understanding to just how powerful they were at the time.)

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