It’s hard to know how to sell people on Nixon, the Lambchop album the internet seems to agree was the career- or sound-defining album of the band’s oeuvre. I wouldn’t really know. I haven’t responded to their other albums like I do to Nixon, and I think I basically stopped being interested in Lambchop about eight years ago.
Nixon came out in 2000, quite some time ago now, and although the band is well-known around the world, it’s not as if they’re big stars. That’s got to be partly because Nixon, while a glorious and one of my favorite albums, is not exactly a hit-laden power pack of propulsive catchy tunes that get you up on to the dance floor etc. The word “languorous” is practically embedded in the album’s DNA. The songs are long, slow, repetitive. The playing is apposite and precise but unvirtuosic, all about soundscape and mood, full of ostinatos and washes. Featured instruments are pedal steel guitar, vibraphones, trumpet, “lacquer thinner can.”
The lead singer and band impresario Kurt Wagner alternates vocally between an ersatz Philly Soul falsetto and a froglike baritone croak, sometimes within the same verse. His voice is like his image: I always see him in those horn-rimmed glasses and trucker baseball caps he invariably wears (obligatory “plate discipline” adherence: he looks a good deal like Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon); and even though these accessories are unimstakably him, I feel like I still don’t know what he actually looks like–he always just looks like his costume. And I couldn’t tell you what his voice really sounds like, either, when it’s free of affect. He’s a character-actor singer. It’s like what Scott Miller writes about Jeff Lynne, whose voice was always heavily modified and half-buried in ELO’s “treble-rolloff rock,” as Miller writes. It’s “as if what I’m hearing is actually vocoder or something.”
Well, anyway, I just wrote all that journalistic stuff and that’s fine, but this is a blog, for one thing, and for another you can go online and read all about Lambchop and Nixon and its “legacy” and what Kurt Wagner thinks of it now and its reissue by Merge this year and all of that. I’m really just here to write about how I love this album for all the inarticulable reasons people should love albums–and I’m talking about albums here. It’s of a piece, sonically and feelingly. It adds up to more than the sum of its parts. I have no idea what Wagner is actually singing about most of the time (often I can’t even understand him) yet the message makes perfect sense to me, and I’m fairly certain it has nothing to do with Richard Nixon (see this, e.g.) even though the liner notes, which I don’t think I’ve ever read, apparently encourage this connection. But that’s like Eliot’s annotations to The Waste Land, which are a red herring. (Check out Wagner’s facetious Wikipedia page.) It’s also like what Scott Miller writes about Sgt. Pepper: Just because the Beatles didn’t intend Sgt. Pepper as a concept album doesn’t mean it isn’t one. Concept is not necessarily deliberate.
Nixon takes me into another world. That’s what an album should do. And I was in another world when I first heard it. It was August 2001. The ravagement of my life was total and I fled North Carolina to San Francisco, where my sister was living. From there I soon continued further west and ended up in Indonesia, but the three weeks I spent in the Bay Area were the disaster relief I needed just to get me to Southeast Asia.
Nothing explicitly therapeutic happened. We went hiking in Marin County a couple of times, I think. We went to Swan Oyster Depot, or whatever it’s called, and ate oysters. We bought vintage clothes on Van Ness. We kicked the soccer ball around on Crissy Field down at the Marina. And this was also the time when we went for that hike out somewhere near San Jose on a day when it was nearly 100 degrees, and Leah got so overheated that I had to run back to her truck and pick her up on the trail.
it might have been this same day that we went out to Torodell, which is the name of a family home out in the sticks of Silicon Valley. Leah was friends/involved with (I could never really tell) this guy named Jonny–I think that’s actually how he spelled it–who was one of the members of this family, and if I’m not mistaken he was also maybe the superintendent of the building Leah lived in, in San Francisco. For good and confusing measure, I had coincidentally gone to college with Jonny’s sister, so there was a twisted set of connections that seems in retrospect very Nixon to me. I didn’t quite know who these people were, how I should think of them, what my (and my sister’s) affiliation with them really was, or where exactly their house was out there in the farmlands or why it was called Torodell or what Torodell meant, since it wasn’t their name or the name of the town or of anything else I could discern. (The only thing answering to the name “Torodell” online is a Dublin-based business of an undisclosed nature.) I didn’t even think the word was “Torodell,” because when my sister pronounced it came out as two syllables, not three, that sounded vaguely like they should be spelled Twordell or maybe just Tordel. I was just along for the ride, anyway, in some sort of volitionless period of recovery.
My sister was in photo school at the time and had taken tons of pictures of Torodell, a kind of fond photoessay about the place. (We have a print or two in our house.) The images suggested an old, lovingly worn estate filled with strange artful relics, such as a mannequin dressed in costume jewelry and a gown and seated on a chair by a window, over which an old curtain hung and through which the California sunlight shone goldenly. That sort of thing. I had in my mind the image of a sprawling, peeling mansion, or mission, or hacienda, with goats all around chewing things to pieces and somebody wandering the property playing a guitarrón and a man reading William Dean Howells or Swedenborg and an old aunt in an inappropriately sheer peignoir unable to find her glasses while picking a lemon right off a tree and squeezing it into her glass of tequila at ten o’clock in the morning. A fantasy of ruined wealth, in other words, which is also very Nixon. The album is extravagant and even aristocratic in some way, but also dissolute, and there is debris everywhere. I think the first song’s lyrics talk about something that has gone missing behind an old speaker, and crushed pecans on the floor.
It turned out to be a much more modest ranch house, as I recall, although of a certain age that gave it a rustic comfort. The inside was brown and wood. Outside, there was an in-ground pool. The kitchen was small and there were a whole bunch of guests for the weekend and all of them, including us, had brought food and drink and so there was far, far too much of everything, which was satisfying. I remember virtually nothing about what we did other than sit out by the pool under an incredibly hot sky and sun. Did we cook out? Someone put on Nixon, and I can only conclude that they played it multiple times, because I fell in love with the album by the end of the night. I was probably drunk, the necessary condition for getting me through the summer. It is an album you can play over and over again, like Another Green World and Avalon and other atmospheric but rigorous albums.
Did I buy the album immediately afterward? I don’t remember. I seem to have had it ever since that day, though.
I had no idea what to expect from the live show at Baldwin Auditorium last night. The first thing is to marvel at what Duke did with that place. It is spectacular and I’m looking forward to hearing something like a string quartet or a piano recital there. I love that they didn’t try to make it a multi-use venue or anything remotely accommodating to most of what the world wants. It’s just there to make music sound great, and it happens to be very beautiful as well, although I don’t guess the beauty was the result of anything other than the residue of trying to make Baldwin a lovely place to hear music.
Lambchop were playing Nixon in its entirety, nothing more or less. This was to open Mergefest and celebrate Merge’s reissue of Nixon in commemoration of the label’s 25th birthday. It occurred to me that this was the second time I got to hear a cherished old album played live, in sequence, in the Triangle. The last one was the Big Star Third event at Cat’s Cradle a couple of years ago. But Third isn’t really an album except by accidental genius. Alex Chilton was very obviously drugged way out while he was making it, and a lot of what makes it cohere is its production, much of which I suspect he didn’t do. Radio City is the true album in his early-career run. Still, that show at the Cradle was magical, and Chris Stamey, who was obviously the organizer of the project, even ginned up a string section, and Mitch Easter and Mike Mills and Jody Stephens etc. etc. etc.
I didn’t think Lambchop doing Nixon was going to rival that, and it didn’t. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t put me into a deeply happy, deeply fulfilled place. I was nervous when the band came out onstage with no string section, because the orchestral stuff is a big part of the album. And I was nervous when five of the seven players took seats in a semicircle upstage. Oh, they were just going to sit there. It was possibly all going to be so polite and so tasteful, which is quite the opposite of what Nixon is–there’s something a little sleazy about it. Mount Moriah had played before Lambchop, and they were tasteful and also dull, even when they were trying to coax feedback out of their amps. “This is for Merge, so sit back and relax,” the lead singer said by way of introduction–ugh: the last thing I want to do at a rock show is sit back and relax. Before Mount Moriah played there was a kid who noodled around pleasantly on an electric guitar for half an hour (where was, say, Jeff Buckley to wail over this stuff? I thought), and I worried that this was all going to be decorous and middlebrow and that this was how Lambchop wanted it and perhaps I had misunderstood their purpose and character all along, all these years.
The two non-sitters in the band (bassist and lead guitarist) stood in their places in the semicircle, so it went (left-to-right) drums, bass, lead guitar, rhythm guitar (and Moog), horns, keyboardist, Wagner. They started into the first song, “The Old Gold Shoe,” and even had a sample of the ambient sound file that opens the album. They played the song perfectly, pretty much note for note, with other instruments filling in for the strings. So I felt like I was in good hands, after all.
The second song has a lot of falsetto, kind of relies on it, in fact; but Wagner apparently can’t sing up there anymore because he’s been smoking too much for too long. So while I was perfectly content to listen to it, it didn’t really fire on all its points for me.
I should add that I didn’t know that this song was called “Grumpus” until I looked it up just now. I’ve heard it dozens if not hundreds of times, but I have no idea what most of the songs on Nixon are called; this is part of its greatness, for me. These things need no names. I couldn’t tell you the titles of many of my favorite paintings, either, and I wasn’t surprised to learn today that Wagner was actually going to be a painter before he was going to be a musician.
Another part of Nixon‘s greatness, as on all great albums, is that there is a moment when a sort of compact with the listener is made. After a lead-in, a wind-up, an extended welcome or working up to a first peak, that first peak comes: the moment when you realize the album means serious business and has more in its tank than it has perhaps initially let on–and, most crucially, has the (lamb)chops to deliver it. Then is does deliver it, and you go, oh, I see, now it’s on.
Come to think of it, this is what good baseball games are like; and just like in good baseball games, there’s no telling where this first peak will come. I recall a game in 2009 when the Durham Bulls put their first three runners on base in the bottom of the first inning and Justin Ruggiano, batting cleanup, followed with a grand slam: a peak, right away–but the Bulls lost the game, and in front of what was then the largest crowd ever to see a Bulls game at the DBAP. They also lost the one last year where Craig Albernaz hit a grand slam off Ye Olde Snorting Bull in the second inning. Good games, like good albums, will of course have multiple peaks, and they will foil your expectations. The first one on Sgt. Pepper comes, for me, in “Getting Better,” when what I believe are congas are added into the mix just before the final verse (“I used to be cruel to my woman…”), along with a strange soft drone that I would guess is treated sitar. The Pernice Brothers’ Live A Little, which is probaly their best album, has a peak that’s so great I wrote an entire homage to it.
Novels can have them, too. I wasn’t sold on Humboldt’s Gift, which I’m currently reading, until (for some reason) the lines, “Mystery was one of his little rackets. This was harmless and in fact endearing. It was even philanthropic, as charm always is–up to a point. Charm always is a bit of a racket.”
The third song on Nixon has such a peak, one of my favorite in all pop music. The song is six minutes long, and the peak comes at the 4:00 mark, approximately. The song is called “You Masculine You” (I have just discovered). It goes along lullingly and pleasantly under Wagner’s falsetto and a lush string section, neither of which we heard last night, so it was a little deflated. But I was just waiting the song out till it hit that moment. Then it did, and it was magical. The song comes to the last of its full stops–there have already been a couple–but this time instead of returning to the verse, it leaps into an extended coda. This coda is anchored in a twelve-note guitar arpeggio, to which eventually accrues a near cacophony of other sound: horns, a thick-sounding guitar part, heavier strings, some sonic texturing underneath it all, and a general rising in intensity and build until Wagner starts singing, “Don’t follow me” over and over. I can’t really tell if he’s warning us against this bad idea of following him–even though you of course just want to follow that repeating coda phrase for the rest of your life–or if he’s being pursued by something menacing. And I also don’t really care. When that first moment of the coda hits, it hits like the hit of a drug, and I just want to stay in there forever. If they were still playing it right now, I would still be there in Baldwin listening to it, dying happily of thirst.
This was also the moment in the concert when the show itself took off. The players started leaning into it a little more. The guitarist, who I understand has rejoined the band after a long absence, was visibly getting into it. Wagner was, too, and if I’m not mistaken he let the coda go on longer than it does on the album. Each player even got a little solo inside the coda, or most of them did, anyway, it seemed to me; and when “You Masculine You” finally skidded to its finish, the crowd’s applause was heartier and more sustained than what they had given to the first two songs. There was no doubt that something had just snapped into place, and that it was going to stay there.
The fourth song is not called “Progeny” or “Come on Progeny,” as I had long assumed. It has the much goofier title of “Up With People.” I don’t know what the connection is to the vaguely scary nonprofit of the same name, or if it’s supposed to tie into the nominal Richard Nixon album “concept.” All I can tell you is that it’s a surprisingly bouncy number, kind of something I imagine the Muppets covering. The bassline slightly resembles that of Joe Jackson’s “Stepping Out.” And here the whole band was grooving more. The horn player was slapping his thighs during the intro, the rhythm guitarist was hand-clapping (I was a little disappointed that the audience didn’t take his cue). The song took the energy from the coda of “You Masculine You” and parlayed it into the next innings of the show.
I was fibbing a little when I said Lambchop played “nothing more or less.” They returned for an encore. Wagner stood briefly downstage, without a microphone, and opened his comments with the line, “Nixon was a bitch.” (He had not spoken, as he warned us he would not, during the performance of the album.) The audience laughed, as they should have, because that was funny, but this was such a simple and true line. A lot of work went into Nixon, and you can hear it, yet the album gives off that languor, that effortlessness, even carelessness: that Torodell charm. It’s a bit of a racket, yes, and so is Torodell, I suppose, but it kind of saved me.
Oh, you picked me up and we went home and for “dinner” we ate the tomato and cucumber salad I’d thrown together to marry before the show. It’s summertime, and the eating is easy. This was: tomatoes, cucumber, a little red wine vinegar, sliced red onion, two whole cloves of garlic (removed before eating), basil, parsley, salt and pepper. I blanched the rest of the yard long beans and threw some in. Eaten over rice. Delicious.
We could get away with that because we had had a piece of Pie Pushers pizza at 5:30. Pie Pushers is my favorite food truck, although I admit I only like two food trucks, with a third almost qualifying. I’m happy for Pizzeria Toro that they reopened, but you’d have thought it was the second coming, the way people were all agog about it. Toro is very good, but it’s expensive, and a bit of a production (a bit of a racket?), and Pie Pushers gives you a big slice of pizza, and a good big slice–in this case topped with a pea shoot salad (!!)–for $4. Sold.