Silent Lambs

Nashville's alt-country big band goes unpluggeD

kilgour at Lee’s Palace (529 Bloor
West), tonight (Thursday, March 7).
$15.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN

the world’s quietest 18-piece band just got a lot quieter.Nashville alt-country soul orchestra Lambchop have never been the kind of band to raise a ruckus, but they sound utterly subdued on the group’s gorgeous new Is A Woman CD.

What’s stunning about the record is what’s missing — most of the band. Aside from a peculiar spell of reggae, the songs on Is A Woman are often little more than songwriter Kurt Wagner’s plaintive voice and a tinkling piano. The other band members lurk in the shadows, with the occasional saxophone solo, stray guitar line or disembodied choir sliding into the mix.

In the wake of the group’s venture into 60s soul on 2000’s highly acclaimed Nixon disc and a subsequent downtempo gospel remix by Zero 7, the decision to go easy-listening seems like a massive shift for everyone except Wagner himself. With Lambchop’s sound this distilled, Is A Woman is as close to Wagner’s world of writing songs on the back porch of his Nashville house as you can get without actually breaking into his yard.

“In my mind, this record’s about the songs more than the sound,” Wagner reasons from home. “This is the sound I’ve always wanted to do, but it’s taken us a while to get to this place, a state where we won’t fuck it up.

“I realize that it’s a very difficult thing to do to make a nice, gentle, quiet mood of a record. Restraint is one of the hardest things to harness.”

The other challenge is telling the 17 other people in your band that their contributions to the record might not be more than an atmospheric creak and a sigh.

Wagner insists that everyone’s there on Is A Woman. Whether you can hear them or not is a different matter.

“The record might have the appearance of not everyone being on it at the same time,” Wagner begins. “Overall, though, almost everyone’s playing on these songs. It’s just that you can’t hear them or it’s difficult to distinguish individual parts. In some instances there are 20 people playing on one song.

“Something like the sax part on The New Cobweb Summer sticks out. That’s an example where Deanna (Varagona) might have played on the whole track, but we chose to feature a little moment because that was enough.

“My only concern about doing this was that this record doesn’t have the variety or beat-ability that makes people get into records. It could end up being a big snooze for people,” he laughs.

At least at home, snoozing while listening to Is A Woman isn’t entirely a bad thing. Playing this music live and keeping people interested and awake will be something else.

Unless they’re willing to sit people down in chairs like Lambchop’s 2000 tourmates Yo La Tengo did in support of their hushed And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out disc, the group could find itself competing with snores and a cash register for attention.

“I’ve seen fights break out in the audience because one person wants to listen and the other wants to talk,” Wagner says. “We’re being both talked over and listened to.

“It’s like some kind of new mosh pit out there, and it’s all part of the sound as far as I’m concerned. Audience participation in the extreme.”

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