Lambchop – Showtunes (City Slang)

Lambchop – Showtunes (City Slang)

Showtunes, my eye. 

There’s something deeply abject about musicals, isn’t there? I use the term abject in the Julia Kristeva sense – the feeling of instinctive horror that accompanies the sight of a corpse or excrement or the yucky-looking skin that forms on top of warm milk. The best musicals understand this – think of Oliver! with its opening ecstatic chorus of all-singing, all-dancing abused and starving orphans. Or to take a more recent example, the song ‘Let it Go‘ from Frozen. Elsa would wish, from her point of view, to pitch it as an inspiring moment of self-empowerment. Indeed the power of those magic words, ‘Let it Go’, lie in their ubiquity as a self-help mantra for the morbidly ruminative. But she’s deluding herself. She knows it, we know it. ‘The cold never bothered me anyway’. Just who do you think you’re kidding, Elsa? You’re comitting a self-destructive act of psychic self-harm, which advances the plot, develops your character and makes the hairs on my arm stand up. Eek.

So, having established that Kurt Wagner, the baseball be-hatted, god-like genius behind Lambchop, has decided to situate his new album somewhere in this deeply manipulative world of unearned emotion, we are glad to report that there’s nothing on Showtunes that is going to be covered by Michael Bublé any time soon. Showtunes is brilliant.

The gimmick on Showtunes is that Wagner has figured out that he can use MIDI to play the piano via his guitar and suddenly has access to an expressive palette that recalls early Tom Waits or the moodier and more modernist side of Gershwin. It’s more than a mere gimmick of course – Wagner’s is one of pop’s most questing intelligences and he’s pushing out into (for him) entirely new territory. The presence of Ryan Olsen (Poliça) and Andrew Broder (Fog) along with Twit One, the German DJ who helped shape previous LP FLOTUS, help to keep things interesting. Yo La Tengo completists will also note the presence of James McNew on stand-up bass. It seems a shame to break Showtunes up into discreet songs – it’s like a continuous sonic frieze that takes in synthesised strings, sampled opera and more obviously glitchy electronic beats, wooshes and echoes, which form an ironic counterpoint to the Nighthawks-at-the-Diner piano motifs. The cumulative effect is that of a nervous collage of processed sounds that repays listen after listen.

The songs have a quality of deliberate incompletion, as though defined by what is clearly left out as much as by what is included. Lyrics seem to bleed from one tune into another. On ‘Fuku’, Wagner croons that, ’God it’s getting hard to tell / Even if you tell it well…’, while a couple of tracks later ‘Blue Leo’ describes a trip to a supermarket: ‘“By the time I get to Phoenix” is softly playing in the produce / There’s a crowd around the leafy vegetables / and the band is getting wet / and it’s getting hard to tell / if it’s gunfire or the sound of fireworks’. This sense of things appearing indistinctly, of things being hard to tell and being everywhere at once pervades the album. The word tell does double duty here, both in the sense of the ability to perceive of an object and also to speak of it. Thus the irony of Showtunes as a title. If a showtune’s nature is to cheaply adorn a wider theatrical narrative, to grasp at things that it isn’t quite able to represent, then Lambchop’s Showtunes repudiate the genre’s shallowness while simultaneously wallowing in its glory. 

One of the most complete songs here is ‘Unknown Man’, which describes looking at or possibly finding oneself in the background of a black and white photo of a man in a street. Or perhaps Wagner is in the street looking at a photo of a man – the way that it’s phrased makes it (you guessed?) hard to tell. The man in the picture has an afro and wears a jumpsuit and will do so forever in the photograph. Again there’s a deft blurring of the foreground/background and the position of the viewer, the ‘I’ and ‘you’ and ‘he’ of the song, gazing at and through each other, across time.

Time is Showtunes real subject, and if pressed to reach for a comparison I’d argue that its closest cousin might be the haunted ballroom of The Caretaker – those old 78s distorted and buried in reverb as a kind of aural labyrinth of loss, dilapidation and oblivion. Showtunes opens with ‘A Chef’s Kiss’, that timeless signifier of a thing brought to perfection. But listen to the words: ‘It took til death to tell your story’, Wagner muses, and dreams of the film he will make of it all.

In the press materials going out with the album, it is carefully and correctly stressed that Showtunes is in no way an album of the pandemic. It was conceived of, written and, one presumes, recorded long ago. “The words have no connection to the experience we now all share”, Wagner is quoted as saying, “I find that to be a strong element in their favour. I’ve yet to reconcile the time I live in currently with something I care to enshrine in song. I’m searching for a way beyond that, but I find it limiting and I think good music deserves better”.

It’s not hard to relate to Wagner’s reticence about being reconciled to where we now. I’ve barely processed the last year myself and have only respect for anyone who has. Yet, a few years ago, on ‘The Air is Heavy and I Should be Listening to You’ from This is What I Wanted to Tell You, a song about air ‘filled with lemon-scented displeasure’, the listener runs into the chorus, ‘This is the new not normal’. Ah yes, the new normal. That fucking thing. Writing about the LP at the time, one of the themes that struck me was a sense of unfolding catastrophe, not in any personal sense, but in the wider climate of Trumpism, or environmental collapse (all those suspicious glances at the weather) and the feeling of something impending, some unspecified threat or anxiety in the background of our lives. 

This is not to say that Lambchop predicted the pandemic. But equally, I don’t believe it took much imagination in 2018 to be filled with dread about what 2021 might be like. Something was coming, if not this pandemic then something equally horrifying. And we were always going to shrug and grit our teeth and call it the new normal and do our best to get on with our fragile little lives, no matter how many bodies piled up, because that’s what you always have to do – you have, as someone once said, always been the caretaker. But Showtunes preoccupation with disintegration and death, and the form its preoccupations take, mark it out as an apt point to sit with our collective grief, whatever the author’s view of the matter. I’ll be interested to return to the record in a few years, in a different and hopefully happier context and find something new, and maybe think of something to say that does it justice.

Because Showtunes is a very beautiful, brilliant record. It draws on the very best of the tradition it alludes to, while playfully subverting it. It’s rare to hear music at once so experimental and also so entirely pleasurable – fleeting moments rendered immortal. 

10/10

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