Quiet as a lamb

Kurt Wagner and Lambchop make music to soothe the soul.

LAMBCHOP, DAVID KILGOUR OF THE CLEAN

Crocodile, 441-5611, $10 9 p.m. Wed., March 13

OVER HIS 43 years, Kurt Wagner has been called a lot of names. Early on, those names were likely pejorative; the sort of base, mother-insulting jibes that adolescents become preternaturally fixated on the second they inherit the suffix "teen." The names gradually grew more innocuous. Then, as he entered adulthood, the names referred to the work he was doing with the country-soul ensemble Lambchop. But of all the aliases he has weathered, there is one that still holds a peculiar sting.

"Musician."

"I still get a weird bristle about thinking of myself in those terms," Wagner admits from his Nashville home. "I come from a town where there's all these people that go around calling themselves musicians, and most of them are assholes. I certainly don't want to be one of them."

Given the retiring, aw-shucks manner in which he presents himself, Wagner's fears are spectacularly groundless. His voice, when he speaks, is a warm Southern baritone that wraps around words like a winter blanket. It's just as tender and fatherly when he employs it to breathe gentle life into the lullabies that make up Lambchop's sixth record, Is a Woman. Where Nixon, the group's last outing, was a sprawling work that engaged a small army of musicians to construct lush beds of Curtis Mayfield soul, Is a Woman is striking in its smallness.

"It's rare that all 15 members of Lambchop ever get onstage together," Wagner says. "The reality is that eight or nine or 10 of us are the working Lambchop. We wanted to do a record that reflected that, to make sure it was a sound that was more flexible in order to really represent it in a live context. It's a major step forward in the idea of restraint."

The songs make their points with understatement, letting piano lines drift down like snowflakes over plucked guitar and shuffling drums. Behind the flurry is Wagner singing softly of love and loss in his stirring stream-of-consciousness prose.

"I did most of the writing in my backyard on a laptop," he says. "I usually have to be by myself when I write, but in the backyard you're never really by yourself. Bugs and dogs and all of those kinds of sounds enter into it, and I just let that inform what I was writing about."

In Wagner's quiet universe, these intrusions of nature assume a symbolic gravity. Bugs become gentle reminders of life's simple constants; a paint can becomes a metaphor for suffering; a matchbook is seen as a symbol of balance.

"One of the things I've found interesting about these songs is how they relate to the here and now," Wagner says. "They stay grounded in current affairs. It's happened that I've suddenly realized what certain songs are about years later, when we're playing in Seattle or something. It gives me a weird sort of chill in a way, like I've found some sort of strange inarticulate code."

The songs have the same elasticity of meaning for Wagner's audience, and his willingness to play fast and loose with language grants them a timelessness unrivaled in popular music.

"People tend to play fill-in-the-blanks and make it relate to themselves in one way or another. It's strange how the context [for the songs] can change, and how that can affect the way they're received or transmitted. Major events in people's lives change the way they perceive things," he says.

Perhaps the record's startling example of the changes wrought by time is the devastating "My Blue Wave." Though the song begins as a playful consideration of Wagner's basset hound, it assumes a darker hue as he begins to describe a telephone conversation with Lambchop member William Tyler. The next few verses unspool slowly, as Wagner relates Tyler's futile attempts to explain the sudden, unexpected death of his sister's boyfriend. When Wagner returns his attentions to the dog in the song's closing verse, there is a marked change—his actions are informed now by sadness and resignation, and he whispers the only tenet that seems to hold any truth: "Sometimes, William, we're just screwed."

"I've never actually named a band member in a song before," Wagner says, "and every time we play the song live, that line has a new meaning for both of us, depending on what happened in that particular day."

Though Wagner's fluid prose would make him a natural for long-form fiction, he says that he hasn't "accumulated enough skill to do it yet."

"I have been doing some hip-hop experiments," he admits. "I got ahold of some drum tracks and just layered four or five texts on top of the beats. I wanted to see if my ideas would work with standard hip-hop. What I came up with was fairly unlistenable, but there's something kind of spooky and creepy about it. But it would need to sound like more than just some guy in a mental asylum, which is how it comes across right now."

No matter what Wagner does, terrific commercial success is a low priority. "Your life and the things you make and express are harmonious," Wagner says. "It doesn't matter whether you're accepted, or you're big in fucking England, or whatever. Maybe it's enough that you're doing what you're doing the right way." He stops himself, embarrassed by his philosophical bender.

There is a silent minute, then Kurt Wagner lets out a giant laugh.

"I swear," he says, "I haven't been on the weed."

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