(City Slang, out Fri 22 Mar 2019)
Auto-tune has a lot to answer for. Since achieving near ubiquity in pop and R’n’B in the noughties, its dubious post-human charms have worked their way into other genres too. Grown men who should know better, like Lambchop‘s Kurt Wagner, now use it unashamedly and ineffectually. It spreads like a blight across This (Is What I Wanted To Tell You), contaminating each track. There’s little left to salvage.
And to what end is Wagner corroding his voice with this electronic acid? To sound more contemporary? To push his music new places? Lambchop have created some of the tenderest, lushest alternative music of the past two decades. As late as 2012, they were producing loveliness like Mr Met. Trade that organic warmth and soul at your peril. And certainly not for the dystopian self-checkout supermarket muzak here.
Wagner was at it with the auto-tune on last album FLOTUS too, but this takes things up a notch. He uses it with self-sabotaging compulsion. Matthew McCaughan (of Bon Iver) is on production and co-writing duties, so may have to share some of the blame, given Bon Iver’s past form in the area.
It’s a shame, because somewhere buried beneath it all are flashes of what Lambchop do best, as well as hints of more productive new avenues they could be exploring. The December-ish You (every track references “you” in the title somewhere) has a sexy 80s soul ballad lurking within. Crosswords, or What This Says About You has a chorus that gets its hooks in – “We’re not playing, we’re not playing with you”.
Every so often there’ll be a snatch of instrumentation that reminds you what they’re all about, like the moody muted trumpet low in the mix on The Air Is Heavy and I Should Be Listening To You or the chromatic harmonica break on The New Isn’t So You Anymore that almost restores the soulfulness Wagner’s vocals are killing off. Even the other electronic elements work in the right setting. At one point in The December-ish You a synthetic record-playing-backwards loop meets the more traditionally Lambchopian pedal steel to good effect. It’s just the vocals spoiling the party.
As if to prove the point, the only (largely) untainted track is also by far the best. On Flower, you can hear the cracks in Wagner’s vocals again. You can hear the lyrics. “That cigarette isn’t going to smoke itself…,” he sings over a sadly arpeggiating acoustic, before that lonesome harmonica comes in again. By God, man, if you can make music as broken and beautiful as this, what are you farting about with the vocal fx for?