Artists are generally not the best people to ask about their work, and musicians are no exception. The most beautiful music can be made by the most inarticulate of souls. But let's listen in on bandleader Kurt Wagner describing the genesis of his Nashville collective's sixth album:
"Most of these songs were written out in the back yard... Sitting under a mimosa tree. I had just quit my job of 14 years in a rather abrupt but liberating way on July 4, to try to give myself the chance to give more attention to writing better songs. So, I ended up sitting in the back yard writing every morning, drinking coffee and being pretty fuckin' freaked out about the sudden hard right turn I had just made with my life. The light was sharp and clear, the sun was warm, as the morning would grow late and the sounds and sights around me were screaming and amplified and laden with meaning, relevance, and potential."
"Meaning, relevance, and potential" is certainly a fitting summation of Is a Woman
's charms, but the morning will have to go. The eleven lengthy songs that make up this hour-long set evoke instead the magic light of evening -- that time on a summer night when the sun is only just still up, and the air vibrates with a golden glow. The opening "The Daily Growl" (pooches are a recurring theme) sets the musical stage for all that follows: gentle piano is joined by gentle guitar, quiet percussion and Wagner's up-front vocals. The song, and the album as a whole, unfold with an encompassing softness. Seventeen people are credited with playing a variety of guitars, organs, brass, percussion and an assortment of other instruments on Is a Woman
, but you'd be hard pressed to firmly identify more than a small handful on any one song. But what's interesting about the album isn't on the surface, where the melodies meander and the songs tend to drift into one another like clouds in partly sunny sky. The multitude of players come through as felt rather than necessarily heard, in a sense of organic richness that's abetted by production from Wagner and Mark Nevers. The album sounds full whether you're in the next room or sitting right beside the speakers. Details -- a horn here, a steel guitar there, a lilting piano figure that appears out of the ether -- fill every cranny in a sound that's still as spacious as Giant Sand's Southwestern soundtracks.
Death haunts "My Blue Wave", a sympathetically stoic tune that advises a man whose "sister's boyfriend has just died" that "sometimes William we're just screwed", while "D. Scott Parsley"'s stop/start rhythm grooves just a little harder than the other songs here. With the music maintaining a hazy, voluptuous backdrop, it's Wagner's lyrics and warmly conversational voice -- with which, paradoxically, he's able to both e-nunce-e-ate and swallow his words -- that carry the weight of holding the listener's interest. Put more bluntly, was quitting his job worth it? Wagner's songs string together details in impressionistic portraits that betray a sly humor and a melancholic heart in delicious similes ("The link between profound and pain / Covers you like Sherwin Williams"). Sometimes he's sitting outside under the mimosa tree, as in "The New Cobweb Summer"'s back yard reverie: "The smokey joe is broken / Drops into your lap / And the big red wasp / Makes a scan through / My black pages." Mostly, though, a low-key surrealism prevails, with couplets like "Dylan and drugs and the sweat bee / Shake and stretch the stiffness out" ("Flick") snaking between and around more prosaic lines about women and dogs, love and nature.
After 2000's critically acclaimed, soul-inflected Nixon, Lambchop seem to have finally outwitted the "alt-country" pin-the-label-on-the-donkey that hounded their earlier albums. Is a Woman loses some of that album's relative sprightliness, opting instead for an expansively full sound that doesn't care to be pigeonholed. Wagner did a good job earlier, so let's listen again: Explaining the compromise between the airy music and the "darker element" in the lyrics, Lambchop's leader describes Is a Woman as "dark and breezy". Fine weather for whiling away some time in the backyard.