Lambchop: Is a Woman

Is a Woman


Color me masochistic, mealy-mouthed, or just a sad,sappy sucker, but I find few things more delicious than heart-busting regret set to music and encased in wax: Billie Holiday, Nick Drake, Ralph Stanley, Cat Power. My latest source for such tuneful woe is the latest Lambchop disc. Forget the falsetto vocals, the brass section, the string charts, and all the sweaty, funky trappings of recent Lambchop albums like What Another Man Spills (1998) and Nixon (2000)--Kurt Wagner did. Is a Woman instead offers an hour's worth of confounding, absorbing piano pop so intimate you can all but smell Wagner's breath.

Somehow simultaneously lush and lonely, Is a Woman spotlights the interplay between Wagner's laconic, almost spoken vocals, and the equally economical (though much more melodic) playing of pianist Tony Crow. Crow is a relative newcomer to the fold: He first appeared on Nixon. To appreciate how he and Wagner dominate this disc, imagine the Timberwolves taking the floor with only Kevin Garnett and, say, Felipe Lopez. Lambchop's deep and talented cast--including such familiar players as Paul Niehaus (steel guitar), Paul Burch (vibes and percussion), and Deanna Varagona (baritone sax)--also come off the bench. Their contributions flicker in the shadows of the songs.

Front and center are Wagner's words--although I must admit that a solid 79 percent of the lyrics on Is a Woman make no literal sense to me. Of those that do, most address nothing more or less than lazy dogs ("You jump up on the bed/Just bones and squirrels inside your head") and dead leaves, a pile of which Wagner memorably describes as "a noisy cracked accumulation of golden brown." Deciphering a "message" in these poetic wanderings is a far less attractive proposition than simply wallowing in their mood.

Not to get all Martha Stewart on your ass, but this is a terrific dinner-party disc (calm and classy, endlessly pleasant as background sound) and also my favorite chill-out choice of late. If I described it as Kurt Wagner's after-hours piano-man album, would you promise not to think of Harry Connick Jr.?

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