Before “Nixon,” Lambchop’s best album was Vic Chestnutt’s magnificent “The Salesman and Bernadette” (1998), on which the Nashville multipiece served as house band. “Nixon” recaptures all the elements that added luster to Chestnutt’s effort: the Salvation Army-band arrangements, the smooth blending of Stax R&B with country torch and twang and the pervasive sense of wonder and delight. But bandleader Kurt Wagner, who inflicts his occasionally laughable falsetto on the mix here, is no Chestnutt, and that, as they say, makes all the difference.
“Nixon,” Lambchop’s fifth solo LP, does have its moments, some of them truly glowing. The album opener, “The Old Gold Shoe,” is a fantastical tale of domestic longing, and Wagner’s gruff voice, a combination of Greg Brown and Lou Reed, sing-speaks its way through lines like “The dirt on the tracks/Have hardened into clusters/Earthen legs and honey mustard.” Paul Niehaus’ Telecaster telegraphs its cascading lines; you can feel your stomach dropping out as Niehaus descends the scales effortlessly. The holy-roller earnestness of “Up With People,” with its refrain, “Up our lives today,” is another victory in which Wagner seems to proclaim that good soul music can consecrate the listener.
These songs, teamed with a creepy pair of tracks that closes out “Nixon” — “The Petrified Forest” and the taut, charging “The Butcher Boy” — offer a glimpse of the kind of album Lambchop could make if they traded in their shtick and schlock for an album’s worth of songwriting and verisimilitude.
But much of the rest of the album turns toward precious self-indulgence. Lambchop has 13 members (including C. Scott Chase on “open-end wrenches” and “lacquer-thinner cans”). But on many of the tracks, the dominant sound is inexplicably a string section courtesy of the Nashville String Machine. And it does sound like a machine, with swooning and swelling choruses thrown off without a hint of subtlety or elegance. “Nashville Parent” has the seeds of a kitchen-sink wonder, but the cloying violin lines make it sound as if it would be more at home on a lite-FM station.
Even the heavy-handed string sections aren’t as egregious as Wagner’s strained falsetto, which he inflicts on tracks like “You Masculine You” and “What Else Could It Be?” But the pretentiousness of aggressively bad effects fits in with Lambchop’s MO. (In the liner notes, the band includes a “suggested reading” list of books on Richard M. Nixon and his fall from grace.) If Wagner could trade in his seemingly endless belief in his own cleverness and concentrate on making an unmitigated record — an album he undoubtedly has in him — Lambchop could rightly take its place as one of the country’s treasured outfits. Until then, it seems destined to remain a hit-and-miss regional oddity.