In 2016, Lambchop, once famously dubbed “Nashville’s most fucked-up country band,” reinvented themselves with FLOTUS, an album of glitchy electronica and autotune crooning partially inspired by contemporary hip-hop. After 20 years and 11 albums of waltzing alternative country, soul and baroque pop, FLOTUS’ pineapple-on-pizza experimentation seemed like a surefire late-career disaster on paper. However, frontman Kurt Wagner and his bandmates pulled it off: Autotune smoothed the familiar warts on Wagner’s warble, Tony Crow’s piano fit snugly alongside hazy synths, and a more abstract songwriting approach put a soft reset on what Lambchop could sound like.
FLOTUS, and its excellent follow-up This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You), heralded an unlikely late-career renaissance for Lambchop that they continue on TRIP, their surprising new six-song covers EP, out now on Merge Records. So the story goes, TRIP started as both an experiment of control and a way to save money. Rather than trek to Europe for a financially questionable tour in December of 2019, Wagner instead invited his bandmates to cut a covers record in Nashville over the course of a week. However, rather than Wagner pick all the songs, he chose one and urged his five other bandmates to pick a cover. Each member then led the recording sessions for their selected song.
The resulting tracklist sounds like a particularly wild shuffle on a hip friend’s iPod classic: Wilco, George Jones, an obscure ‘70s garage band called Mirrors, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, James McNew of Yo La Tengo. Creating a cohesive listening experience out of these disparate songs is the kind of “square peg in a round hole” challenge on which Lambchop have thrived as of late, and by and large, they deliver one of their most accessible, psychedelic and beautiful projects yet.
Whether it’s the friendly collaborative nature of the EP’s concept, or the fact that these guys just love playing together, there’s a breezy assuredness to the music that merges Lambchop’s electronic present with their pedal steel- and guitar-heavy past. This feels especially natural in “Where the Grass Won’t Grow,” made famous by the legendary Jones. Rather than recreate the song’s rustic twang, Lambchop double the track’s original length. Matt Swanson’s loping bass and Paul Niehaus’ extra syrupy pedal steel add an unexpected hypnotic groove to this fieldworker’s tale of cyclical tragedy.
Lambchop also take their time with the heavenly bliss of Wonder’s “Golden Lady,” slowing the song to a blurred crawl. Wisely avoiding an attempt to match Wonder’s near-perfect voice, Wagner digitally alters his baritone until it’s practically buzzing above the churning music beneath him. On “Shirley,” one of the few songs released by Cleveland garage rockers Mirrors, Lambchop show how deftly they can put on a sneering Velvet Underground chug, with the song’s spacey latter half sounding like a FLOTUS b-side. While these slightly baked performances show just how expertly Lambchop can straighten out a good curveball, this technicolor slow jam approach isn’t full proof.
Between a squelchy keyboard riff and Wagner’s demonic spoken-word parts, the band’s take on The Supremes’ “Love is Here and Now You’re Gone” is goofy, and would no doubt illicit cross-eyed looks at the stereo in mixed company. As fun as the trippy hijinks of TRIP’s middle section are, they also give the listener room to pull themselves together for the emotionally potent sluggers the EP packs at its beginning and end.
The EP opens with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot curtain closer “Reservations,” complete with an extended recreation of the Wilco song’s abstract soundscape of faded piano, tape loops and skittering drums. While enjoying that portion is entirely dependent on your appetite for long stretches of ambient noise, Wagner’s startling performance in the song’s first half makes it more than worth the price of admission. Stripped of the pitch-shifted manipulations from Lambchop’s most recent albums, there’s an emotional vulnerability to Wagner’s singing that instantly vice-grips the heart. His audible vocal quiver at the line “I’ve always told lies for love” is especially tear-jerking. While not quite as showstopping as its opening foil, “Weather Blues,” an original, unreleased song written by Yo La Tengo bassist McNew, is no less beautiful. Wagner sings of taking care of someone he alternately holds in his heart and arms while twinkling guitar rock brings TRIP to a gentle close.
On the surface, TRIP’s concept sounds like the kind of diehards-only project that would fit on the back half of a career-spanning boxset or as a high-priced Record Store Day release. Instead, Lambchop continue to subvert expectations by making TRIP an essential chapter in their recent creative hot streak. If you’ve ignored Lambchop so far, now is the time to listen as a beloved band operate at the peak of their powers.
Reed Strength is a writer from Birmingham, Ala. If you’ve got recs for where to start with the discography of Lambchop favorite Vic Chestnutt, hit him up on Twitter @ReedStrength.