ON THE PROWL- It's like glue: two ounces of pain go their own, long way
When We Were Small
It doesn't seem quite right to call this Detroit-born, Seattle-based girl's album ambitious– its 10 tracks come in just under 37 minutes, most of which couldn't compete with a pin drop, let alone the bottle clinks and chatter of a club. But the emotional depth charges Thomas lowers with the ghostly tensile strength of spider's silk prevent you from thinking of it any other way.
Drawing exclusively on wide-angle deep-focus remembrances of her childhood (judging by a dated Polaroid in the liner notes, she's a ballpark 27 years old) and mashing them with innocence and maturity, hope and loss, Thomas draws an inner architecture that's more than a conceit. And despite its outer inwardness— the family album in the liner notes, inter-track childhood audio snippets— the songs on When We Were Small nimbly shift pitch, focus, and perspective bewitchingly, unconceitedly.
Songs like "Farewell" capture a generation's worth of familial ambivalence in a bug jar and put it under a microscope a generation later. Thomas is kind enough to keep this and other quiet punches to the gut short, staying under the top and insinuating immensity with sharp details. Her parents' divorce in her teens seems to inform many of the songs. Here, a parent, or Thomas herself, fluctuates between admission ("I was wrong I confess"), confusion ("I was wrong I guess"), and paranoid non-sequitur ("I never asked for a sailboat in the yard") while a mournful piano drags its feet.
Children know what most adults can forget: being a kid can be a bitch. Thomas remembers, and all of her characters possess this sense of the unfairness in the struggle against monolithic, immovable, unknowable forces. Whether she's dealing with fallout in "I Run" ("No more tea parties, parades, or mothers in love") or anticipating it in "October"("Tell her you miss her when you're close enough to kiss her/But never never leave her"), Thomas lets the dumb bluntness of loss poke through.
The mirror image of accepting loss is hope, which, while not preventing this from being an essentially sad album (the pace is too somber, and her high, soulful voice doesn't get much happier than bittersweet), persists enough to prevent listening from being a masochistic act. The spare fingerpicking, shy piano, and watery cello are stark, but lines like "Things are just the way they are/So let it go and say you tried" have more vision than finality. "Sometimes it feels worse than it really is" she sings to herself, and to us.
Is a Woman
Based firmly in Nashville, Tennessee, Lambchop's sound owes a lot to country, but the only excess they might have absorbed from the country music capitol comes with the size of the ensemble. Comprising as many as 13 members (it depends who can get off from work), the group includes two guitars, one bass, two drummers, pedal steel guitar, open-end wrenches, lacquer-thinner can, organ, xylophone, euphonium, trombone, baritone sax, trumpet, clarinet, bongos, resonating metal square, and a vanilla extract bottle.
Led by the songwriting of singer/guitarist Kurt Wagner, Lambchop used a core group of nine players to record their subdued sixth album, Is a Woman. Though recent albums revealed a taste for the cross-state horn-fueled soul of Memphis' Stax records, Is a Woman sheds the goofy humor and the big sound, focusing instead on Wagner's Indian summer cud chewing and Tony Crow's delicate piano.
Wagner really did write much of it during mornings in his back yard, but the quiet murmurs that back him up have more to do with dusk than dawn's optimism. Drums sound like expectant far-off thunderclouds on "Caterpillar." On "I Can Hardly Spell My Name," syrupy female vocals touch down like a late-night August shower. Horns syncopate like cicadas in the trees of "The New Cobweb Summer," while washes of electronic noise doppler through like passing cars.
The constant strains of Crow's soft piano— it often sounds less like he's playing it than rubbing it— and Wagner's voice— where deep velvet folds hide a flinty frog in his throat— are the wicks that holds the album together, either just barely or too much. Is a Woman is less a collection of songs than a suite of nocturnes that slide into each other like the hours of a particularly long night after a really long week.
Though the album has more than its share of abstract puzzles ("Chickadee tosses leaves out of her nester/My uncle's uncle's Uncle Fester" goes a line on "Autumn's Vicar"), Wagner also gives oblique glances to the troubled sea slowly churning around his small porch. On "My Blue Wave" Wagner hears of his friend's sister's boyfriend's death. Wagner's lucid, human response: "I'm not sure what to tell him he should do/Sometimes, William, we're just screwed."
A troubled relationship gets revealed veil by veil on "Caterpillar", a slow dirge where Wagner remembers, "I had a name I never used for you, till then." A line like "You have lost your socks and panties out by the caterpillar" could be vulgar, but it stops there— he's a smart enough lyricist to know that you keep some veils on.
The album's flaw, though, is not throwing out enough lifeboats to help us through the night. Wagner gives a sense throughout of riding out rough times. Hold steady, keep your eyes open. With only one up-tempo Lambchop-of-old song, the reedy, familiar, move-on-up funk of "D. Scott Parsley," some eyes might start to droop. This all-nighter isn't always easy to pull, but in the end it'The Hook Newss worth staying up.