Lambchop

Nixon

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Supposedly a concept album about the disgraced 37th president of the United States (though the lyrics make no recognizable statements about Richard Nixon's infamous life and times), Lambchop's fifth full-length was a powerful consolidation of the strengths they'd gained since their uncertain debut in 1994. Kurt Wagner's sometimes singing/ sometimes talking vocal style, and lyrics that were oblique to the point of seeing surreal, remained a matter of taste, but his melodies hit a new peak in their beauty and evocative spirit as he merged countrypolitan country, smooth R&B, and chamber pop in ambitious and intriguing ways. And as Lambchop swelled to 13 musicians (not counting guest musicians, a choir, and the string section), the arrangements became increasingly sophisticated as Wagner and his collaborators used their rich palette of sounds to inspire a wealth of moods -- from the easygoing groove of "Grumpus" to the luxurious sadness of "Nashville Parent" -- and helped to clarify and strengthen that which seemed uncertain in Wagner's lyrics. And given the sheer ambition of this album, Nixon is a milestone in independent record making, music constructed on a grand scale that's richly satisfying without seeming overdone or tricked up simply for its own sake. And regardless of how one feels about Wagner's abilities as a singer, when he lets his heart do the talking on numbers like "The Distance from Her to There" and "The Book I Haven't Read," his sincerity is undeniable and affecting. Calling Nixon Lambchop's masterpiece is to ignore the fine work they'd done before, and the similarly ambitious work that came afterward, but it is the point where they showed they were in full command of the tools and talents at their disposal, and its glorious eccentricities are as pleasurable as anything in their catalog.

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