Since the glittering country-soul grandness of 2000’s ‘Nixon’, Lambchop records have settled into a fairly predictable pattern. Comprising mainly of easygoing grooves and slow-motion sadness, the latter ‘Chop output’s ranges from brave experiments - the stripped-to-the-bone ambience of ‘Is A Woman’ (2002) - to unfocused overloads of the band’s trademark easygoing charm (2004’s overly generous double ‘Aw C’mon/No You C’mon).
The good news is that ‘OH (Ohio)’ not only follows in the footsteps the woefully overlooked, magisterial mournfulness of ‘Damaged’ from two years ago, but also adds a few fresh colours to Lambchop’s extensive palette. Not that the ever-evolving Nashville collective’s tenth album is a radical departure from familiar templates – anyone looking for, say, speed metal interludes or subterranean rattle of dub bass will be sorely disappointed. The pace remains predominantly stately, with instruments – bit of piano there, a touch of female backing vocals and soft horn riffs there - dropping in and out of the mix as and when required. Frontman Kurt Wagner presides over the proceedings with the casual air of a man reading aloud amusing newspaper articles from the comfy confines of his rocking chair. The focus remains firmly on Wagner’s dry observations based on the minutia of life, wrapped in his inimitably warm croon, with the musical backings rarely stepping on the toes of the songwriter’s unhurried delivery.
Even so, Wagner’s decision, inspired by a recent solo tour, to join the ongoing downsizing boom by cutting the combo’s extended line-up down to a more manageable seven full-time members works wonders in tightening up the band’s sprawling sound, and with it Wagner’s songwriting. No longer content with surfing the same chord progression from beginning to end once a suitable one has been located, ‘OH (Ohio)’ provides a welcome reminder of Wagner’s ability to pen a killer chorus. There’s even a couple of uptempo tracks - the brilliantly titled if overlong ‘National Talk Like a Pirate Day’, the positively bouncy ‘Sharing a Gibson with Martin Luther King, Jr. - to spice up the haste-free proceedings.
But it’s the slower stuff that leaves the longest-lasting impression. For the first time on a Lambchop record, guitars hog the spotlight, with intricate semi-acoustic picking reminiscent of the folkie simplicity of Tim Hardin and prime Gordon Lightfoot elevating both the minimalist pulse of ‘Ohio’ and the disarmingly beautiful ‘Slipped, Dissolved and Loosened’ to truly lofty levels of loveliness. Elsewhere, a delicate piano figure fires up the glowing ‘Of Raymond’ (an ode to a garden statue!), whilst the downbeat country-soul of ‘Hold of You’ is gorgeous enough to resemble a less luxuriously layered cousin of ‘Nixon’s Curtis Mayfield-hued highlights. Perhaps best of all the stunning slow-cooking sermon ‘Please Rise’. Comprised entirely of the various uses of the verb ‘stand’, it should be a one-way ticket to dullsville. Instead, it turns out to be a genuinely touching ode to human capability for goodness.
Making magic from the mundane could well be Lambchop’s motto. On ‘OH (Ohio)’, their distinctive brand of low-key alchemy produces some remarkable results.