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To celebrate its 20th anniversary, Lambchop’s 1998 album ’What Another Man Spills’ is being pressed to vinyl for the first time after it’s original release 20 years ago. Remastered from the original DAT, the 2-LP and CD reissue features a refreshed artwork, and a limited version comes on coloured vinyl.
It was hard to know what – or sometimes even who – Lambchop were by the time they released What Another Man Spills, their fourth full length record, in September, 1998. An album assimilating multiple styles, some recognisably theirs and others doubtless unexpected, it seemed at the time mildly baffling, albeit, simultaneously, a continuation of the unique style that they’d initiated and an ingenious swerve towards territory that might, in other hands, have felt incompatible.
It was also the work of a band for whom the word ‘membership’ was unusually open to interpretation: if you turned up with an instrument – whatever it might be – at mastermind Kurt Wagner’s house in a humble Nashville suburb, then made it down the rickety stairs into his dusty basement to contribute to the strange noise being made beneath his living room’s wooden floorboards, you could, by rights, consider yourself part of the group. That they’d started out as a trio – originally called Posterchild (until The Poster Children objected), and formed by singer / guitarist Wagner, bassist Marc Trovillion and guitarist Jim Watkins – never gave much indication as to who Lambchop were, even from one day to the next.
Described invariably from the start as a bizarre, sprawling, country music collective – their record sleeves always made a point of instructing listeners to “visit the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, TN” – Lambchop had initially stirred interest in the UK, of all places, with a pair of peculiarly named albums, 1994’s I Hope You’re Sitting Down, which also went under the name Jack’s Tulips, and 1996’s How I Quit Smoking. These helped establish (or at least revive) one of those things that critics like to call a ‘scene’ – duly named Alt. Country or Americana – which, they suggested, drew, partially at least, and in different measures, on the spirit of outlaws like Gram Parsons, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and, later, Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle.
So Wagner and his revolving band of colleagues soon found themselves filed alongside similarly influenced, similarly recalcitrant contemporary acts, including Freakwater, Sparklehorse and Will ‘Palace Brothers’ Oldham. These, though, were only loosely comparable, mainly for their shared attitude rather than its results, and Lambchop were never ‘country’ in any traditional sense of the word anyway. Nashville might have been their home, and they might have nodded to its dominant sound, but they never did so in a fashion that pandered to its conventions. Instead they established themselves, if inadvertently, as outsiders, their interest in such music merely a springboard from which to explore whatever other fertile ground intrigued them.
This they did with glee on What Another Man Spills, having been inevitably, largely shunned in their homeland, and even by their hometown. After all, in the early 1990s, Nashville was long past its sell-by date rather than the gentrified, hipster city that it’s become in recent years. With the place – and all it stood for musically – broadly snubbed for its robust association with an unfashionable sound, its younger or more adventurous citizens were in turn cold-shouldered by the local establishment, allowing, among others, “Nashville’s most fucked-up country band” – as they originally, knowingly styled themselves – to develop their art out of the spotlight, and, in Lambchop’s case, during unofficial, ‘downtime’ sessions in renowned studios. The band were therefore left free to pursue their creative urges without undue economic pressure – after all, no one was ever going to join a band this populous to get rich in a rundown city – and secure in the knowledge that they must be doing something right to have been ex-communicated by their neighbourhood musical community.
Furthermore, Lambchop’s roots were independent, both artistically and in terms of their music business relationships. This enabled them to be next to fearless, addressing unpalatable topics such as suicide, employing a gritty vocabulary which leapt from strikingly sentimental images of romance to ugly words like ‘scrotum’ – sometimes in the same song – and able to incorporate previously unanticipated musical styles, from avant-garde noise to soul, into their arrangements. What Another Man Spills, though, is far more than the sum of its many parts. While it may not have refreshed audiences in quite the same, startling fashion as those first two albums – and that’s not to forget 1996’s mini album, Hank, famed for its pithy final track, ‘I Sucked My Boss’ Dick’, whose unlikely title followed in a tradition first established by the likes of ‘Soaky In The Pooper’ and ‘The Man Who Loved Beer’ – it’s a record that, in hindsight, becomes especially fascinating. It shows a band in flux, testing themselves as much as new styles, their by now firmly established, if offbeat approach welcoming improbable influences, their ambitions extending far beyond their previously subterranean existence.
Heard as part of their larger catalogue, What Another Man Spills represents a milestone in Lambchop’s career, but not in the modern sense of a ‘landmark’ release (though it was, and remains, a vital part of their oeuvre). Building on foundations that had once sounded almost literally creaky, it expands upon the tentative manoeuvres they’d undertaken with the previous year’s Thriller – most notably its single, the radio-rebuffing ‘Your Fucking Sunny Day’ – and gestures confidently towards its brassy successor, Nixon, which would arrive in 2000 to wild acclaim and previously unimaginable commercial success. Indeed, it sits at a crossroads between the band that Lambchop first emerged as, and the band that they would later become. If it felt at the time like a reasonable, yet slightly confused descendant of what had gone before, without it, one suspects, what followed might never have been possible. In fact, what might first seem an anomaly in their catalogue, a deviation from a previously familiar path, instead becomes a beacon lighting the way forward. It is, one might say – were one eager to mix metaphors within a single paragraph – both ugly duckling and beautiful swan all at once.
Elsewhere in this reissue, Wagner refers to the album as marking the “‘methodization’ of what it meant to make Lambchop records”. In suggesting an incredibly warm collection was calculated, he risks underestimating its strengths. Naturally, Mark Nevers’ studio techniques ensure it sounds leagues ahead of anything Lambchop had previously released. (Frankly its gloss rivals any of the polished recordings coming off the Music Row production line at the time.) In addition, the band’s success at integrating a vast string arrangement into a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Give Me Your Love’ unlocked opportunities, in terms of production, that might otherwise have been unthinkable to them. Nonetheless, this is Lambchop: thanks both to the album’s content and its clash of styles, carefully premeditated methodology appears – superficially, at least, and in a welcome manner – lacking in other artistic sectors, their distinctive impulses instead intact.
Consequently, while their stunning, nimble, and soon-to-be show-stopping reading of Mayfield’s ‘Give Me Your Love’ may find companionship in an elegantly peppy cover of Frederick Knight’s tender ‘I’ve Been Lonely For So Long’ – and together these undeniably signal the path the band would promptly pursue – elsewhere it’s a pick ‘n’ mix selection. There’s a song by Dump, a lo-fi, guitar-friendly side-project led by Yo La Tengo’s James McNew, and another two by F.M. Cornog, another artist signed to Lambchop’s American label, Merge, and better known, albeit by criminally few, as East River Pipe. (He’d also previously contributed three tracks to Thriller.) Wagner himself only contributes six, and this is something which might add to concerns that the record is scrappy, as though the title itself suggests it’s been compiled from what others have discarded. Fortunately, though, there’s a red thread running throughout, one that would be further developed on Nixon: soul music, whatever it might sound like, is best defined by the simple fact that it originates in the soul.
Accordingly, lo-fi recordings characteristic of both Cornog’s and Dump’s careers are here reinvented, with the transparency of the former’s lyrics and melodies poured forth sympathetically, whether in the unguarded optimism of the soothing ‘Life #2’ or the almost haiku-like simplicity of the extravagant, galloping ‘King of Nothing Never’. Splashes of brass, moreover, on a rumbling canter through McNew’s emotionally intricate ‘It’s Not Alright’ bridge the gap between the band’s older, rawer sound and the increasingly sophisticated realms into which they’d now begun to delve. One can also hear echoes of the enthusiasms which led Wagner to Mayfield and Knight straining at the leash during opening song ‘Interrupted’s extended instrumental sections, while the smooth ‘Scamper’ would have had little problem slotting onto Nixon a couple of years later. What Another Man Spills might spread its reach wide, in other words, but it embraces everything comfortably under one roof. Despite its digressions, it’s instantly recognisable as Lambchop.
This was never truer than of the extraordinary, lilting ‘Scamper, which reveals, in stark but empathetic terms, the reality of Wagner’s day job sanding floors. His voice wavering with a hint of vibrato, he paints a distressingly visceral portrait of old age, culminating in a description of an incontinent woman asleep on a sofa as he continues his work around her: “Three hundred and fifty pounds of machinery/ Roll between her surgical stockings.” That his final, ambiguous “I’m terrified” might first be interpreted as repulsion at the decrepit lady’s state, and only later as dread at our universal human decline, makes its poignancy all the greater, and such pathos is matched by ‘Interrupted’. An exceptionally concentrated, precisely articulated example of Wagner at his best, it kicks off by serenading its audience with a little Mexican guitar before, against a richly textured arrangement, Wagner stacks up words – lugubriously, over a mere sixteen lines – to complete, like a puzzle, a vignette detailing what would in any other hands have been a prosaic night-time trip across the street to allow his pet dogs to urinate.
Visually compelling yet enigmatically delivered, powerfully intimate and oddly confessional, ‘Interrupted’ is one of a trio of Wagner songs launching the record, and it’s followed by the appealingly lazy, innuendo-laden ‘The Saturday Option’, which employs charmingly archaic vocabulary – “Mine is a lazy bumpus” (look it up) – to depict, poetically, the act of sex: “Do the shabby thing/ With you/ Separate the lily/ From the dew”. ‘Shucks’, meanwhile, points directly towards Nixon, its gorgeous piano solo coincidentally the first sign of the tremendous influence newcomer Tony Crow would later have on 2002’s Is A Woman. Typically, however – this being Lambchop – the song then defies its effortless, dreamy rendering of a polite gathering, offsetting nostalgic field recordings of sweetly senescent society with shocking imagery: “Rotting bodies wrapped in black cowhide/ Sit at the table by your mother’s side”.
Further confirmation of Wagner’s willingness to address taboo themes is evident later in the album on ‘N.O.’, whose mellifluous melody, snaking through swathes of Paul Niehaus’ gleaming pedal steel, presents a horrifying yet still affecting narrative of alcoholic dependency, culminating with an unforgettably grotesque image of “a human pile/ Of hair and cum”. There’s one final Wagner song, too – ‘Magnificent Obsession’ – nestling towards the album’s close. Sandwiched between its remarkable re-imaginings of Knight’s ‘I’ve Been Lonely For So Long’ (which showcased for the first time a falsetto Wagner would exploit more fully on Nixon) and Cornog’s ‘King Of Nothing Never’, its calm helps row the record back to Lambchop’s idiosyncratic musical departure point – without ever apologising for pushing the boat out in the first place – and offers a welcome reminder of Wagner’s inscrutable literacy (“Lost in topography/ Each with our possessions”) and humour (“We all know love is free/ I guess you’re frying chicken”).
There’s a final, ‘hidden’ track as well: ‘The Theme from the Neil Miller Show’, written by the band’s co-founder, Marc Trovillion, to whose memory this reissue is dedicated. It provides an almost flippant coda reminiscent of some of the band’s earliest, more playful work, and as a finale it’s as eccentric as the album’s packaging: printed – at least for the original CD format – on tracing paper, it reproduces an ingenuous illustration by their dear friend, the late Vic Chesnutt, with whom they’d just worked on the soon-to-be-released The Salesman And Bernadette. Hidden on the spine of the CD tray, too, were the song titles, only faintly visible, while any credits were barely discernible in equally tiny type beneath the disc itself, as though none of the story behind the record were important. All that mattered was the music itself, alongside its intentions.
At 55 minutes long, there were plenty of such intentions in evidence – if to a certain extent subconscious – on What Another Man Spills, especially compared to the sometimes-hesitant Thriller, the 34-minute album that had preceded it. In terms of its sonics, it represented a huge leap forward, and stylistically it took bold, convincing strides towards uncharted territory. Its impact wouldn’t be felt for another couple of years, of course, but then it would suddenly look like part of a carefully orchestrated masterplan. Today, too, it continues to stand as a vibrant, satisfying snapshot of a band at a pivotal moment in their lengthy career. Soon they’d almost entirely leave their formative aesthetic behind to embark on a journey that would reach so many people it would ultimately help transform Nashville’s image as culturally moribund and reactionary. But what and who Lambchop were, and what and who they are, never really changes, despite their gradual evolution. They are, and always will be, Lambchop, and they could never have been that without What Another Man Spills.