Weeping violins. A cello that leads into a rousing orchestral flourish. Some soft plinks of piano. It’s all exceedingly elegant. Then the vocals kick in.
“Don’t know what the [expletive] they talk about . . .”
It would be a jarring shift if those words didn’t come from a voice so calm and inviting. That voice belongs to Kurt Wagner, the singer and creative force behind Nashville’s Lambchop, one of the most interesting and distinctly American bands of the past 20 years. When Wagner sings, it’s often barely more than a whisper, as if he’s in a small room, speaking right into your ear. He’s close enough so you can hear every inhalation, every smack of his lips.
“They are conversational,” the 53-year-old Wagner says of his songs. “Hopefully I’m talking to an individual as opposed to a group en masse, which I think distinguishes some anthemic rock from, say, what I do. It’s sort of counter-anthemic.”
“Counter-anthemic” is about as good a way to describe Lambchop’s music as the many labels that have previously been applied. You’ll need a whole lot of dashes and slashes to cover all of those bases. And yes, country/chamber-pop/soul/jazz/lounge-rock/R&B and Americana are all present and accounted for in Lambchop’s music. But with each successive album, Wagner’s songs have sounded less like a melding of genres and more like the formation of a signature sound.
Acts such as Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits have built long careers while becoming genres unto themselves. Lambchop might not have the same name recognition as those two songwriting titans, but Wagner has set the band on a similar path. This year’s “Mr. M” is the band’s 11th album and its biggest breakthrough yet. It’s graceful, touching, and the pleasures are more subtle than ever.
But “Mr. M” is an album with sad roots. It is dedicated to Wagner’s longtime friend Vic Chesnutt, an acclaimed songwriter with a beautifully warped take on American music, who died on Christmas in 2009 at 45. But Wagner — in his typically cagey manner — gives a tribute that’s abstract.
“Part of what I do as a writer and as an artist is that I draw upon my experiences, my friends’ experiences,” he says. Chesnutt’s death weighed heavily on him and eventually found its way into Wagner’s music. “It wasn’t an intent to start at the beginning as, ‘That’s how I’m going to deal with these things.’ ”
If Wagner hadn’t gone public with this information, people might not have picked up on the theme. When you know what to listen for, the rueful meditations of “2B2” and “Nice Without Mercy” are that much more affecting. But the composed manner in which he gives equal weight to death and the small details of everyday life has been one of Wagner’s trademarks from the beginning. This is a band that first gained notice in 1994 with a song called “Soaky in the Pooper,” arguably the most ridiculously titled song ever about suicide.
It’s a bit surprising that Wagner offered background on the album at all, given that one of his first public statements related to Lambchop follows him to this day. That’s when he referred to the band as “Nashville’s most [expletive]-up country band.”
“Our intent when we sort of put that out there was to test to see if anyone was actually paying attention at all,” he says. “So I certainly feel as much to blame that it’s there to begin with,” Wagner says with a laugh.
Lambchop has shape-shifted over the years as a live ensemble. The constant is Wagner, always seated front and center, always wearing a baseball cap. But there have been more than a dozen musicians at times, and when a string or horn section makes a guest appearance, the band resembles a symphony onstage. It can be rousing and, yes, even anthemic. The band’s 2009 set from the 20th anniversary celebration for its longtime label, Merge Records, was greeted with such a rapturous reception that it was released as a live album.
Just a five-piece Lambchop is touring the country this spring, and Wagner is happy with the reduced number. When close to 20 people are onstage, he says, it can distract from the music. And despite the occasional ability to get fists in the air or breathless screams from the audience, Wagner knows his songs are meant for a smaller scale.
“I don’t know if I could see a stadium full of people singing ‘Soaky in the Pooper,’ ” he says. “I just don’t see it. But it could be kind of cool.”
Sunday at 8 p.m. at Iota, 2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-
Monday at 8 pm. at Rams Head Tavern, 33 West St., Annapolis. 410-268-4545.
For a sampling of Lambchop’s music, check out:
From “Mr. M”:
“If Not I’ll Just Die”
“Nice Without Mercy”
“Up With People”
“The Old Gold Shoe”
“The Rise and Fall of the Letter P”