Reviews

Lambchop
What Another Man Spills
(Merge)

Despite a Nashville home and album cover pleas to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame there, Kurt Wagner's band Lambchop is more art collective than country group. As enamored with Memphis soul and Velvets-styled mood pop as with Patsy Cline's countrypolitan, the ever-growing outfit (now at 14 members) is a charming experiment in creating indie-rock chamber music. On What Another Man Spills, the band's fourth full-length, Lambchop proves even more engaging, dynamic, and skilled at combining its wide-ranging tastes into one introspective record. Even when the horn section is at its loudest and the drums are at their most insistent, the atmosphere is consistently claustrophobic, pleading, and hopelessly romantic. Which makes Lambchop a country band after all, though more in feel than actual sound.

Wagner's own moody ambitions are underscored by his continuing collaborations with like-minded dour souls. Athens-based beautiful loser Vic Chesnutt provides cover art and sleepy background vocals, a perfect complement for Wagner's own passive drawl. (Lambchop backs Chesnutt on his forthcoming record.) And as on the band's previous album Thriller, Lambchop once again solicits songs from East River Pipe's F.M. Cornog for two of the disc's most engaging moments: the (relatively) rollicking "King of Nothing Never," and the gorgeous dirge "Life #2," where the lush, lap steel-based arrangement tightly embraces the track's vocal misery. Wagner's own songwriting, often prone to an aimlessness that plagued 1995's How I Quit Smoking, has tightened as well. On the twangy and piercingly slow "The Saturday Option," he sighs that "heaven is a disaster," picking away at emotional scabs.

Slivers of sunshine appear in the form of two R&B covers: Lambchop gives Curtis Mayfield's Superfly track "Give Me Your Love" delicacy, reverence, sweet string trills, and antiseptic funk; Frederick Knight's "I've Been Lonely for So Long" gets a quirky but soulful mix of ringing marimbas, chiming guitars, and Wagner in high-pitched loverman vocal mode. The far-flung musical ideas are surprisingly cohesive, mainly because they all find a musical center in loss and disillusionment. If it's true that misery loves company, Wagner made the smart move in assembling the biggest band he could find.

-- Mark Athitakis

The Tony Rich Project
Birdseye
(LaFace)

On "Ain't No Laughin'," the final track of Tony Rich's new album, the soulful balladeer implores, "Don't forget my chili." It's a sly reference to the opening lines of his highly regarded 1995 debut, Words, in which he orders a bowl of the stuff in a cafe. Rich is after more than a casual link between his recordings. He continues as the music kicks in: "Time to get into your mind/ Who knows what it really means/ Is it all about corn bread and collard greens." Rich is again raising the issue of whether it's OK to be middle class and black: Chili is certainly a commonplace dish, but it ain't soul food.

Words was a devotedly upscale recording. There were songs set in cafes and lyrics about walks along quiet rivers; one picture in the sleeve was of the singer reading a newspaper. In interviews Rich was outspoken about not using ghetto insignia to authenticate his blackness. A lot of people liked what he had to say, but not urban radio. Words boasted but one major hit, "Nobody Knows," which sold mostly due to support from new adult contemporary radio, which is becoming something of an avenue for MOR black misfits like Rich, Des'ree, and Kenny Lattimore.

Some argued that Rich sounded too much like his label head, Babyface, but they weren't listening very closely. Babyface was all longing and naked emotion. Rich favored restraint. Rather than the urgent pleading that might attend a relationship at its turning point, Rich's songs were hopeful but calm; they resembled the spirit of a second date, which followed a good first one. His confidence was one of his sexiest attributes.

Until now, that is. Birdseye is a short, thin recording that feels like a rush job. Rich's songs still owe more to Crosby, Stills, & Nash than to Wonder, Gaye, or Brown. But his restraint is gone. Now, he sounds a lot like Babyface drowning his listener in need. The album is poorly paced: The first five tunes are slow to midtempo ballads. His grooves are not deep enough nor is the mood sultry enough to make that work. Eric Clapton guests on three tracks, but his playing here is not distinctive. A little variety kicks in on the lightly funky "Cool Like That," and Rich offers a cute satire of Bob Dylan's intonation on "Ain't No Laughin'," but by then it's clear that the best thing about this 41-minute-long record is its brevity.

-- Martin Johnson

Blue Mitchell
The Complete Blue Note Blue Mitchell Sessions (1963-67)
(Mosaic)

By 1958, when he was 28 years old, trumpeter Richard "Blue" Mitchell had already played R&B with saxophonist and bandleader Paul Williams, hornman Earl Bostic, and blues shouter and balladeer Chuck Willis. He had retreated to his hometown Miami, where Cannonball Adderley heard him and brought him back to New York City. Mitchell joined the Horace Silver Quintet that year and stayed for six more. Silver was hot: His catchy compositions, careful arrangements, and funky piano combined sophistication and gospel-blues fervor in a way that proved just right for the '60s.

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