I have a friend who is vehemently against iPods. The reason for his hatred is not because he is a dedicated fan of vinyl or compact discs. He hates iPods because people walk around listening to them, with the volume turned up, ignoring the world around. He sees iPods as a bridge in the gap of the virtual and the real. To my friend, iPods are a symbol of delusion.
On the other hand, I like iPods because they allow me to listen to music all the time and, believe it or not, I love music. Most recently, my iPod has been the most powerful weapon in the battle on homesickness. Southern bands comprise the majority of space on that little machine, and especially bands that evoke my home state of Tennessee — Nashville country, Memphis soul, and indie bands like The Silver Jews and Lambchop. It is Lambchop and the new record, Damaged, that has best recreated that world for me as of late.
In the first song of Damaged, chief member Kurt Wagner sings, “I would like to buy a good used paperback Bible.” The lyrics are taken directly from Swap Shop, a cable access community yard sale type show that my friends and I used to watch for laughs when we were little. In Swap Shop, East Tennesseans call in and trade things from their garages. The show, or at least last time I saw it, was hosted by two sincere elderly rednecks.
From there the record paints a more nuanced picture with songs that highlight the functionality of the home despite its broken nature. Wagner is the best at encouraging grand statements by the most mundane of observations as in “the rise and fall of the letter p” when he sings “And I promise I won’t live without you/And I promise I won’t be that mean/These stupid promises are accumulating/In a grossly unwholesome scene.” In few words, he expresses all the hopes and fears of a man in love.
Unlike his home life, Wagner’s ensemble is anything but lacking. Lambchop has historically consisted of a lucid conglomerate of musicians, and Damaged is no exception. This record boasts over 17 contributors, from mainstays William Tyler on guitar and pianist Tony Crow to the new addition, Hands Off Cuba, a Nashville electronic duo. Tyler’s ethereal guitar and Crow’s gospel infused piano lend sufficient palate to Wagner’s musings but it is Hands Off Cuba’s interludes that give Damaged its unique fingerprints. Lyrics like Wagner’s juxtaposed with music like this are the antithesis of my friend’s aforementioned “iPod problem.” Technology might aid indulgence in the virtual and ignorance of reality but Lambchop confronts this gap with no intention of proselytizing either territory.
Throughout Damaged, Wagner even speaks about things such as computers, cable shows, and cell phones as though they are welcome yet awkward friends. (Coincidentally, Merge Records rewards buyers of this vinyl with the mp3 download as well, a marketing device ideal for these themes.) Just like our families and our homes, our cultural priorities are damaged, but Wagner does not make excuses. On the song “prepared ” he sings, “I am the most undisciplined of man.” Wagner owns his problems and works with what he has.
On the highway in Nashville there is a great white statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest riding a horse. Any history buff will tell you that he was the Confederate general who went on to begin the Ku Klux Klan. While I am not from Nashville, I have never been able to tell why a monument to such a controversial figure is still standing. On the last, and my favorite, track of Damaged, “the decline of country and western civilization,” Wagner sings “Well I hate Nathan Bedford Forrest/He’s the featured artist in the devil’s chorus/And damn they’re looking ugly to me/Damn they’re looking ugly to me” as if to drive home the point that Wagner is on to us as a culture.
Constantly, I must remind my cynical self that there are all kinds of good music still happening in culture today but veterans are releasing most of it. Artists like Wilco, Yo La Tengo, and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy make music that is light years ahead of their comrades. One thing that makes them so good is that they have taken the American ‘melting pot’ approach to art to its critical mass. Any given song might be Neil Young meets Neu! meets Phillip Glass meets ABBA. And they do it in interesting ways, but what makes Damaged so great and unique is not the way in which Lambchop are a saturated melting pot but it is the way in which they are reflective, pulling influence from who and where they are. When Lambchop want to play Motown, they play it as white countrified Nashvillians and it works. It’s almost as if they are so comfortable in how red their necks are, it’s not crazy to think of their music as black.
However, Lambchop comes across as anything but complacent. A constant paradox, Kurt Wagner and Lambchop remain a band fixed in Nashville but constantly moving, a band that celebrates the real and virtual with a leader who wants to change but has no regrets. Damaged is a beautiful record not for its heroism but for the confidence/insecurity of its performers and that kind of honesty is perhaps the most necessary gift any musician could give to this iPod wearing, cell phone using, cable watching, damaged culture of ours.