Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A Presidential Election

Calexico - Carried to Dust (City Slang, 2008)
Lambchop - OH(Ohio) (City Slang, 2008)

If I see the words ‘return to form’ used in reference to either of these two albums one more time I think I’m going to throw a hissyfit. John Mulvey at least admits the term is a ‘dread phrase’ in his blog about ‘OH(Ohio)’ on the Uncut website but it’s still a contestable claim that either band ever really lost form. Lambchop albums have perhaps become more slippery and elusive since ‘Is A Woman’, but ‘Damaged’ had a rather creeping, insidious effect on me that I came to admire. As for Calexico, their tentative venture into rockier territory on ‘Garden Ruin’, rightly acclaimed in reviews at the time, has now been condemned as a mis-step in retrospect. Regardless of what one thought of that attempt to diversify, the mini album with Iron and Wine ‘In The Reins’ remains to my mind one of the great unsung masterpieces of the decade so far. Critics are fickle beasts!

‘Carried to Dust’ certainly ought to please those Calexico admirers who would prefer them not to change too much. The mariachi horns return, there are plenty of lush strings and border-evoking brushed drums. Yet to suggest the group have completely abandoned the map they began charting with ‘Garden Ruin’ is a little misleading. There are some dramatic guitar atmospherics on the restless ‘Writer’s Minor Holiday’ particularly and a number of other tracks are not easy to pigeon-hole as border music. The slow building tension of ‘Man Made Lake’, for example, crafted with sustained piano chords and some unrestrained guitar howling, would not have been a feature of the Calexico sound before ‘Garden Ruin’. If Arcade Fire borrowed some of Calexico’s stylings for their majestic ‘Ocean of Noise’ (by some distance the best track on ‘Neon Bible’ for me), Calexico now return the compliment by using a distinctly Arcade Fire-esque backbeat and slow building tension on ‘Two Silver Trees’.

Elsewhere, the sound is more comforting and familiar, the Spanish language collaboration with Amparo Sanchez on ‘Inspiracion’ taking many of Calexico’s preoccupations to their logical conclusion. There’s that deliciously dusty quality to many of the songs, with the lightly rolling rhythms, evoking, it must be admitted, images of horses and wagons, they deploy so effortlessly. One can hardly blame the group for returning to these well worn tropes when they are so adept at executing them. Best of all is when they apply a new and unexpected nuance to these characteristic features. The superb ‘Fractured Air (Tornado Watch)’ benefits from some echo effects on the horns more common to dub reggae than American or Mexican folk music. Together with some syncopated rhythm guitar, it makes for something lithe and funky.

I’ve seen some reviews that suggest the songwriting on this album fails to match the impact of the group’s instrumentals. I have to disagree quite strongly with this, as ‘Carried to Dust’ is certainly Calexico’s most immediate collection so far (if not necessarily their best). Some of their songs are admittedly more about mood than melody (‘Bend to the Road’) but ‘Carried to Dust’ has more than its fair share of stirring creations. ‘Slowness’, featuring the delightful vocals of Canadian Pieta Brown, is particularly glorious, subtle and restrained but also with some kind of gently hymnal quality to the performance. ‘Victor Jara’s Hands’ and ‘News From William’ are the kind of compelling narratives we’ve come to expect from the group. Perhaps least predictable is the hazy, eerie, partially electronic ‘Contention City’, a journey into dreamlike fantasia the band handle remarkably well.

As is often the case with Calexico, there’s quite a lot to absorb within this album’s fifteen tracks (sixteen if you get the iTunes bonus track) but it’s too easy to take this group for granted. They remain musicians who luxuriate in every slight detail – the effect created by a single hit on a cymbal bell, or exploring the interplay between guitars and pianos, a frequent feature of this collection. I suspect this is something a little more than just another good Calexico album.

The extent to which ‘OH (Ohio)’ represents a diversion from Lambchop’s most recent work has arguably been overstated. It’s more skeletal, with the florid string flourishes of ‘Aw, C’Mon/No You C’Mon’ now firmly jettisoned, but 2006’s excellent ‘Damaged’ had already initiated that process. It shares with its predecessor a tendency to divest Kurt Wagner’s idiosyncratic voice of personality, his croaky mumble too often obscuring his strange and original lyrics. His words can as a result fall into the background, carefully enmeshed in what is undoubtedly a very lovely, mostly sedate sound.

For me, Lambchop tracks were always more powerful when they made a triumphant virtue of Wagner’s vocals and lyrics. ‘Nixon’ worked as much because of the extraordinary, piercing attack and surprise of that falsetto, as much as through its lavish arrangements. The best songs on ‘How I Quit Smoking’ (‘Theone’, ‘The Man Who Loved Beer’) saw Wagner embracing melody as well as acute-angled phrasing. Whilst some found the smoky ambience of ‘Is A Woman’ detached and unemotional, I found both lyrical and musical poetry within it, given investment of the necessary time and effort. Whilst there are plenty of moments on ‘OH(Ohio)’ that are tender and pleasant, there is nothing here that really moves me quite as palpably as those highlights from their back catalogue.

Where the band would previously delve into a nimble and funky soul groove, the emphasis on ‘Ohio’ is more on gently plucked guitars, Tony Crow’s piano now providing subtle shading rather than dominating proceedings as it did on ‘Is a Woman’. Typical are the title track, ‘Of Raymond’ and ‘Slipped, Dissolved and Loosed’. The latter is easily the most memorable thing here, its cooing backing vocals almost sounding comic but also providing a smooth counterpoint to Wagner’s staccato bursts. The opening title track is irresistibly cute (with its central refrain of ‘green doesn’t matter when you’re blue’) but, with its Jobim-tinged arrangement, it’s perilously perched on the precipice between tasteful delight and background or lounge music.

Perhaps there are two points of significant departure here – the use of two producers (regular contributor Mark Nevers and Roger Moutenot, who has worked wonders in the past for Yo La Tengo and Sleater Kinney amongst others) and the occasional deployment of uncharacteristically brisk, driving rock backbeats. These tracks, both superbly titled (‘National Talk Like A Pirate Day’ and ‘Sharing a Gibson with Martin Luther King Jr.’), arguably sound incongruous in context, but they at least provide a very welcome distraction from the familiar dignified restraint on offer elsewhere. ‘National Talk Like A Pirate Day’ is superbly arranged, with Byrdsian jangly guitars and a potent counter melody from the bass.

A number of the tracks here seem to be more subtle and stately takes on familiar Lambchop modes. The lovely ‘A Hold Of You’ veers close to the country soul template they perfected on ‘Nixon’ but seems, perhaps rather self-consciously, to make sure the lid stays firmly on. Some of the songs seem to drift or meander rather lazily, sometimes outstaying their welcome a little. Perhaps the clearest example of this here is the lengthy ‘Popeye’, where Wagner’s words are at their most buried, the harmony seems to repeat a familiar Lambchop sequence, and everything just seems to run on without much purpose (at least until it suddenly veers into a loose-limbed funky coda). It all makes for a very appealing late night or early morning listen – mostly relaxed and elegant but never quite completely awake. Perhaps this is the same criticism that many used against ‘Is A Woman’, but I felt the consistent languid mood of that album serviced its unusual and idiosyncratic songs well. Also, Wagner’s vocals, although abandoning the falsetto, remained striking and incisive on that record.

As ever with Lambchop, the track titles are a veritable treasure trove of imagination in themselves and Wagner’s ruminations on the nature and limitations of masculinity remain transfixing and illuminating. Yet there’s an increasing sense that Lambchop albums now require a quite substantial investment of time and effort from their audience. I’m sure the dignified, tasteful songs on this album will continue to grow on me but I can’t quite escape the sense that this is basically just another good Lambchop album and nothing more, nothing less.

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