Album Review: Lambchop - FLOTUS

Thirty years into their career, the revolving Nashville musical collective known as Lambchop have always maintained a sense of humor. Whether it is non sequitur song titles, self-aware lyrics (they did open 2012’s Mr. M with the line “Don’t know what the fuck they talk about”), whimsical musical arrangements, or the off-beat, low speak/sing warble of frontman Kurt Wagner.

Originally deemed an “alternative country” act, the band has incorporated a lot of other elements within recent years, including lush orchestral arrangements, and a relaxed, almost “lounge music” feeling at times.

On their latest album, FLOTUS, a quick first glance would have you believe it is just another Lambchop record. The title alone is a bit of a nudge and wink: within the last eight years, the term has come to be synonymous with the “First Lady of The United States.” Wagner has even go so far as to put a slightly out of context drawing of Barack Obama’s hand on Michelle’s shoulder on the record’s cover.

Within this situation, FLOTUS actually stands for “For Love Often Turns Us Still,” and in the interviews Wagner has done leading up to the release of the record, he said that he wanted to make music that his wife would like.

Here is where FLOTUS ceases to be just another Lambchop record.

Inspired by artists like Kanye West and Frank Ocean, and incorporating myriad forms of musical technology, I stop short of saying that this album is as large and out of control of a garbage fire as Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, but it comes damn near close, and after multiple attempts to sit through FLOTUS, I can assure you that it is completely uninteresting and practically unlistenable.

Opening with a maddeningly self-indulgent 11-minute track, “In Care of 8675309,” Wagner assumes his usual role as a laid back pontificator, but here, as is through the rest of FLOTUS, his fragmented lyrics are filtered through a TC-Helicon Voicelive 2 processor, making him sound like a god damn robot on every fucking song.

Leading up to my first listen to the album, I was aware of Wagner’s embracement of technology, but for some reason, I had misunderstood—I thought it was used sparingly. It was only after I made it to the second song that I said to myself, “Oh, so the whole album is like this.”

There are very few redeeming qualities about FLOTUS—as a band, Lambchop is usually comprised of very tight musicianship, but unfortunately here, Wagner forgoes his usual stable of players in favor if drum machine beats and myriad use of synthesizers and keyboards. It’s actually only on the aforementioned “In Care Of” that an actual band shows up to back him.

In contrast, the album’s preposterously long closing track, the 18-minute “The Hustle,” it’s the only song that Wagner sings straight up—even as shuffling programmed beats and layers of synth threaten to drown his un-effected voice.

After hitting play on FLOTUS, I Tweeted that I felt like this album was a joke that I just wasn’t in on. And in a classic example of “maybe I just don’t get it,” Pitchfork kicked off the week by giving the album an 8 out of 10, calling it “lush and gorgeous.”

I don’t want to get into reviewing a review, but this album is anything but. Wagner’s voice has always been unnerving and a little inaccessible, but I have always found his rich, odd baritone slightly comforting. However, on FLOTUS, it gets lost in vocal effect fuckery, stripping away any human or personable aspects this music may have had.

As I gave credit to Justin Vernon for sitting down and learning how to manipulate vocal samples and create the sonic palate of 22, A Million, I do have to give kudos to Wagner for becoming this interested in contemporary popular music, and while pushing 60, strapping the Voicelive to his microphone stand and getting to work.

FLOTUS arrives as the band’s 12th proper studio album. I have never been a die-hard Lambchop fan—I first discovered the band thanks to catching a performance the band gave on a 2004 episode of “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” then later buying the Aw Come On/No, You Come On double album. Since then, whenever the band puts out something new, I usually pay attention to it, though I’ve never gone back to investigate their classic albums like Nixon or How I Quit Smoking.

I would say that this album isn’t going to alienate their regular listeners, but I would be willing to bet that it will leave many scratching their heads. While immersing itself in sampling and effects, Wagner is unable to make an album that has any clear resolution or point. And if there was one, or still is one, it is drowned by the focus on style over substance.

FLOTUS  is out on Nov. 4th, via Merge.