When: Sun., April 2, 8 p.m. 2017
On last year's FLOTUS, Lambchop's Kurt Wagner made a sharp turn from his signature sound—an unclassifiable amalgam built from Nashville, indie rock, and other elements—and crossed into the realm of effects-laden, Auto-Tuned sounds associated with up-to-the-minute pop-song aesthetics. In doing so, Wagner seemed sure to test the devotion of the musical purists in his fan base. One morning a few months ago, when a d.j. on free-form heavyweight radio station WFMU named Mary Wing played the record's opening track, "In Care of 8675309," her response to my complimentary post on the station's message board confirmed my suspicions.
"I love Lambchop," she wrote. "But the auto-tuned voice is creeping me out. Why was this necessary? His voice is unique, why tamper with it so obviously to make it sound more "normal" or whatever he's trying to achieve?" One Lambchop-loving listener added, "I'm dismayed. I tried to be open to it. But it's just awful, to me."
Wagner was already well versed in people's antipathy toward Auto-Tune, and has admitted to having once felt that way himself when it first emerged as a tool to "fix" recorded vocals. But seeing the many creative uses to which it has been put in the ensuing decades, he set out to play with the sound of his voice. In September, ahead of the release of FLOTUS, Wagner wasn't worried about whether the new direction might lose him some fans. He instead laughed and said, "I really have no idea about that. I'm just responding to the world around me. For a long time, that type of music that we're talking about had been in my world, be it next door, or what my wife listens to, or what I hear when I go out on the town. It is part of the world and I'm trying to move around in it."
The songs that bookend FLOTUS reflect Wagner's gradual learning process. "The Hustle," which closes the record and is a full eighteen minutes long, shows off Wagner's clearest enunciation on a record on which his voice is pixelated and obfuscated in slews of painterly ways. That's because it was the first song he and his musicians recorded, and he was still searching for the right tools to get the sound he wanted. "In Care of," the last song they recorded, unfolds over twelve intoxicating minutes and boasts the most organic blend of vocal manipulation spliced with Lambchop's undeniable sense of soul and poignancy.
"Once I'd gotten into the actual manipulation and processing the voice, the whole thing just kicked wide open, and led us down the lotus path, so to speak," he said. That path might not be for everyone, but for others, it's plenty intoxicating. —David Klein