2 out of 5 stars
After emerging from Nashville in the 1990s as an alternative country group, Lambchop has done little to gain fans outside of its initial following. The group continues to play second fiddle to the famed fuzzy sock puppet of the same name. Nevertheless, the band progressed with each new album. Its style ardently resists categorization and its new release, OH(ohio), is no exception.
The group’s composition sheds a little light on its multi-faceted sound. Frontman Kurt Wagner aside, the band’s foundation is continually in flux. While averaging around 10 members, the credit list of each album is strikingly different. The first Lambchop album, I Hope You’re Sitting Down (1994), was undeniably alt-country, while the last release Damaged (2006) strayed from the group’s western roots into a more modern, atmospheric feel. OH(ohio) takes only a small step from that.
As was true with its most recent albums, Lampchop’s latest is driven by its recognizable vocals. Wagner’s low, rumbling voice dribbles out subtly idealist sentiments atop entrancing — though at times dull — instrumental backing. The lyrics that are actually sonically comprehensible — through Wagner’s garbled whispers — feign profoundness, but are mostly just ambiguous. In “Ohio,” Wagner proclaims “Green doesn’t matter / when you’re green,” and he continues in “Sharing a Gibson With Martin Luther King Jr.,” muttering “We’re all afraid / where there is no fear.” The songs sound like they should have meaningful and intelligent messages, but it’s not exactly clear what those messages are.
Part of the problem is that Wagner’s voice is a gentle grumble nearly impossible to decipher. A mix of Willie Nelson and Serge Gainsbourg, Wagner’s vocals babble along, soft and slightly monotone. Oddly enough, “A Hold of You” provides Wagner’s confession of just this, as he sings: “I’m not the great communicator … / I’m such a bad enunciator / understanding is hard.” Often what makes folk groups so compelling is their poignant lyrics. Lambchop fails here.
The collaborative band and country inflected arrangements on OH(ohio) sound slightly reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s later works (think “Nettie Moore” or “Ain’t Talkin” from Modern Times). The major difference is that Dylan’s music inspires listeners to change their way of thinking, or at the very least, pulls on heartstrings. On the other hand, with Lambchop’s latest, it takes a concentrated effort not to fall asleep. The tracks sound increasingly alike, beats that use similar rhythms and paces and indistinguishable lyrics.
It’s not all so sedated, though. The aforementioned “Ohio” has a bit of a bounce to it, and “National Talk Like a Pirate Day” shoots some much-needed adrenaline into the album, picking up the pace and throwing in some major chords for a change. On the other hand, “Popeye” is six minutes of utter droning, and not much more than that.
For the first 10 minutes or so, the chill, folksy country is a soothing soundtrack. But listening to the full 50 minutes without dozing off into a nap is challenging. It’s a lecture. The album could be fascinating, but considering Wagner doesn’t sound passionate about it, it turns into a snoozer. As the furrier, more frenzied sock puppet Lamb Chop would say, this is the album that never ends. It goes on and on, my friends.