Nashville’s Lambchop, a gigantic ensemble of 10-plus musicians, remains the biggest band to consistently sound so small; they’re capable of whispering the wispiest, gentlest, sweetest sweet-nothings in your ear. The kind of group that seems so mellow that you forget your feet have started moving, you’re so intent on listening. The key to Lambchop’s brilliance is the group’s ability to mix confessional intimacy with frenetic energy, reflective musings with ringing anthems, lilting pedal steel licks with loud guitars, pretty melodies with pounding drums.
Tools in the Dryer, a collection of A-sides, B-sides, live tracks, and remixes, serves as something of a retrospective of the group’s last decade or so. From the early, spastic homemade cassette recordings, featuring drunken flutes, tinny drum machines, distorted guitars, and joyful vocals (“All Over the World,” “Style Monkeys”), to the sexy, sophisticated, wonderfully self-conscious mutterings of later years (“Cigaretiquette,” “Whitey”) to rhinestone-and-ecstasy dance remixes (“Up With People,” “Give Me Your Love”), the CD gives a sense of Lambchop’s breadth. No wonder Vic Chesnutt and others have used Lambchop as a backing band: They’ve got a distinctive but malleable magic to their sound.
Lambchop is often lumped in with the alt-country movement. But the band, led by Kurt Wagner (the Al Green of indie rock), might really be thought of as alt-soul. At their best, they groove with that easy, Southern-soul sway, relaxed and funky all at once. The rhythm chugs along, but the instruments–guitars, pedal steel, percussion, horns, and vocals–criss-cross each other, wrinkling the music up and letting it unfold in new, surprising patterns. Meanwhile, Wagner croons and mumbles, pontificates and wonders. He makes his way through the big mysteries and small pleasures of everyday life like a soul man in an existential funk, or–as he puts it in the closing track–like a “moody fucker.” It all makes for music rich with dusty, earthy majesty–a little kingdom ruled by the biggest little band in Nashville.