Lambchop

FLOTUS

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Since their recording debut in 1994, Lambchop have evolved from a small combo to a veritable orchestra, complete with horns and strings. But since the mid-2000s, Lambchop leader, songwriter, and lead singer Kurt Wagner has been easing back on the scale of his ensemble, and 2016's FLOTUS is one of the most purposefully spare albums of his career. Lambchop once cheerfully described themselves as "Nashville's most f--ked-up country band," but FLOTUS betrays not the slightest country influence. On FLOTUS -- which Wagner insists stands not for "First Lady of the United States," but "For Love Often Turns Us Still" -- the languid, spectral melodies are most often carried by pianos, synthesizers, bass, and drum machines, easing along with the unobtrusive grace of an ambient performance. And Wagner treats his own voice as another instrument in the ensemble, processing his singing through Auto-Tune that transforms his distinctive mutter into something quite different. FLOTUS plays like Wagner's Bizarro World take on smooth R&B and electronic pop, though most of this is too laid-back to function as dance music (even though the liner notes contain convenient BPM counts for each tune). But as different as the approach may be, the melodies and the homey but abstract lyrics still sound like the work of Kurt Wagner. Bookended by two extended numbers (the finale, "The Hustle," comes in at over 18 minutes), this music is full of emotional warmth despite the cool surfaces, and though Wagner experimented with electronics with his side project HeCTA, on FLOTUS he's found a way to effectively fuse beats and keyboards with the slightly bent but heartfelt persona he's carefully fashioned over time. And while it bears little resemblance to anything in Wagner's catalog, "The Hustle" feels like some sort of masterwork, a rueful but passionate meditation on love and relationships that glides along on an endless pulse that's as elemental and sustaining as the human heart. Two decades on, Lambchop are not only still able to surprise listeners, they're doing some of their best work at the same time, and FLOTUS is an unexpected triumph.

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