Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Are You Ready for the Country?

Artists: Paul Burch & the WPA Ballclub; Lambchop
Albums: Blue Notes (PB); I Hope You're Sitting Down, What Another Man Spills, Nixon, Is a Woman, Tools in the Dryer
Source: Bought new (IHYSD); promo (all others)

It will come to no surprise to anyone who has spent 15 minutes with me that I love record stores. Actual record stores. It's kind of a lost art these days, but there's nothing quite like getting lost in the racks of a good ol' fashioned retail music outlet. I've spent hours in places and walked out with an armload of shiny new (or used) treasures...or sometimes with nothing more than just the light buzz of having taken in the sights, sounds and smells of all that delicious musical possibility.

The big downside of most record stores, though, is the genre system. Not every shop breaks down genres the same way (Other Music in NYC uses divisions like Out, Then and Psych/Prog to slice up its holdings), but they all do it. I guess it just wouldn't work to lay it all out in alphabetical order and let the public go spelunking through the mixed media...we need to have it divvied up into digestible portions for us, even if that means making a judgment call about whether all Bill Frisell releases qualify as jazz, or if Aretha Franklin should be in Rock or R&B.

While the genre map can be kind of helpful (otherwise you might not learn that The Bad Plus was jazz until you'd gotten home and unwrapped the package), it can also draw harsh borderlines that many music shoppers are loath to cross. I know I certainly kept my distance from the Country section in any shop, from Tower to Third Street Jazz and Rock, that would cordon off its Nashville-driven holdings. I mean, what did I want with those cowboy-hatted hillbillies, right? I was a righteous rocker (suspicious of Neil Young's country moves) and/or eclectic music snob...surely such snobbery exists to sweep aside baser forms like country music.

But just like it took certain noisy rock bands to bring Ornette and Trane records into my life, it was an odd bit of indie rock that made me ready for the country. Lambchop, a large collective of musicians who billed themselves as "Nashville's Most Fucked-Up Country & Western Band," popped out a strange platter in 1994 called I Hope You're Sitting Down (or Jack's Tulips, depending on which side of the CD's jewel case you looked at). Slide guitars, weepy acoustic balladry, Southern-fried had all the trappings of country, but...well, like they said, it was kind of fucked-up. The liner notes credit one of the dozen or so players with "open-end wrenches," song titles include "Soaky in the Pooper" and "Let's Go Bowling," and one of the most beguiling songs has an emotion-laden lyric that goes, "She asked for some gum/He gave it to her."

What the hell?

It was easy to get sucked in to Lambchop's C&W world, because it was both totally familiar and utterly alien. They put on hypnotic shows where a stage full of people would make barely any noise [Side Note: one Lambchop appearance at a CMJ Merge Showcase had Yo La Tengo as the rhythm section; Superchunk's Mac on keys; and Neutral Milk Hotel's Julian on singing saw. Holy crap!]. And each record they released was more wonderful than the last, eventually adding R&B moves to the C&W base, more horns, more strings, more swing, more rock, more esoteric cover tunes, and more willful oddity.

If this was country music (and it kind of was, even if in a larger sense it clearly wasn't), then I wanted more. It quickly became OK to let other country seep into my ears. I began to hear it as a sort of regional, hillbillified blues music. And by the time Merge sent me a promo of Lambchop confederate Paul Burch's straight-up country record, Blue Notes, I was open to enjoying it.

Of course, now that I've learned to enjoy actual country music, most of my Lambchop records don't sound all that country to me. But they were the perfect gateway drug to the harder Nashville stuff, and it's thanks to Lambchop that I'm not afraid to wander into the Country section of the record store.

SISOSIG? Like children or pets, I love each of these Lambchop records equally but differently. If pressed, I'd have to say that What Another Man Spills is the first among equals here, with Nixon close behind. But I wouldn't want to part with any of these, nor the country tunes that have followed in their wake.


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