After we’d all had a couple days to absorb Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, I remarked to a friend that the trick was in approaching it just like you approach free jazz: listen past the surface-level cacophony and you’ll hear the exquisite work of a gifted melodist; without the dissonance, those striking tunes might almost be too ravishing to bear.
Lambchop maestro Kurt Wagner is on to something similar with FLOTUS, I think—but instead of slicing and dicing his tunes like Justin Vernon does, he gives them to us straight, albeit washed in vocoder and electronic gurgling. If a sudden shift toward EDM trappings sounds like an awkward fit for an alt-country band, well, it plays out as neither sudden nor awkward; rather, FLOTUS is the latest in a long line of Lambchop albums to sound utterly distinct from the one that preceded it while also sounding totally in tune with Wagner’s cracked, world-weary vibe.
And that’s the thing: oddly serendipitous though it may be for Lambchop to dive into electronics just weeks after Bon Iver bowed to the lord Yeezus, there is none of that record’s mixed-up confusion here, no discord, no abrasion. FLOTUS comes on like a slow burn and mostly stays there; this music is elegant and tuneful, often feeling spare and inviting despite the disembodied instrumentation. It’s a record to ease into in the wee small hours of the morning, a record whose melancholy carries a certain romance, and where the lilt of sadness feels somehow inviting.
The whole story unfolds in the little details, where the album-bookending epics provide the ballast and weight but the little songs in between seem to carry its heart. On “Directions to the Can,” warm piano and organ hum carry the tune, while Wagner’s muttering vocals blend into the tapestry of sound. “Justice is served,” he mumbles at one point. “You just take it on the chin.” It sounds like a resignation—and it doesn’t sound so bad.