Across more than two decades, the brand applied to Lambchop has shifted from “alt-country” to “chamber pop,” but both labels applied only as a matter of convenience. With no precisely accurate description for the ever-changing palette of genres—from soul to jazz to easy listening—taken up by Kurt Wagner and his Nashville cohorts, generic characterizations seized upon the band’s instrumentation, whether incorporating folksy pedal steel and acoustics or lush orchestration. With the stark stylistic about-face that is FLOTUS, however, that’s no longer a problem. The record, a subdued collection of electronic mood music marked by heavily processed vocals, wipes away most of the group’s previous hallmarks.
Prior fans of the band should know by now never to get too comfortable with its present sound, but they will still need some time to adjust to this approach. Most noticeably, FLOTUS (a title described as an acronym of For Love Often Turns Us Still and not a first-lady reference) largely obscures Wagner’s sing-spoken, blackly sardonic lyrics—a large part of Lambchop’s charm—in the distorted output of a TC-Helicon VoiceLive 2. Vocals here are just another sound to contort, layer, and fracture; his biting observations and quirky storytelling are there, but need to be rooted out and cleaned of artificial enhancement to be understood.
And while Wagner has always given his compositions plenty of room for meditative moments, he’s never been as thoroughly devoted to atmosphere as he is here. In many places, the division of FLOTUS into individual songs feels like a formality; textures blend and fade in an aural wash that reveals motifs and melodies like pebbles in a receding tide. Finding and appreciating them takes patience, and they’re easy to lose in the gravel of blips and beeps and drum-machine beats.
FLOTUS’ parts make for a mixed bag, but their sum is an entrancing and contemplative experience. Beginning with the soulful, 12-minute haze of “In Care Of 8675309,” the record uses light guitar strumming to strike a ruminative aura before floating into a shadowy smog. In this echoed, intimate ether, “Howe” is a warm glow of smeared vocals and fluttering piano noodling, and the unstructured “Relatives #2” gently melds into a catchy blend of deconstructed slow jazz and R&B. The overall ambiance is cool and pensive without being vast and isolated, as if Bon Iver soundtracked quiet, empty city streets rather than wilderness.
It all culminates with “The Hustle,” a sprawling, 18-minute experiment in jittery minimalism. Written after Wagner observed the synchronized line dance at a Quaker wedding, the song is a canvas of glitch upon which he paints a tense, fragile relationship confessional using modest splashes of piano, oboe, and horns. Missing is the color and vibrancy of the Van McCoy disco original, but that’s consistent with what FLOTUS is all about. To add something meaningful to the current electronic-music canon, Wagner has fully cut the tethers to the past.