Mr. M opens with the sweet strain of strings, which had me wondering if I was listening to the wrong album. Then Kurt Wagner makes his entrance with the line, "Don't know what the fuck they talk about," which serves to reassure that yes, this is the right place.
The band couldn't have picked a better way to pay homage to their late friend and collaborator Vic Chesnutt than with that line's blend of salty honesty and semi-sweet delivery. The song is titled "If Not I'll Just Die" which comes - probably not coincidentally - from the final line of Burt Bacharach's "This Guy's In Love With You." But this song sounds less like a love song than an overview of the scene of the recording, where Wagner comments on the sound of the strings, offers a desire for some flutes (which never happens) and adds that Grandpa is coughing in the other room. Regardless, it's a great scenario and a good way to open an album.
The rest of Mr. M, Lambchop's 11th album, finds Wagner sketching out more stories, some as immediately engaging as "If Not I'll Just Die" and some not quite as successful. His delivery almost makes him sound like a crooner in the old fashioned style, with the lack of technique coming to the surface occasionally, adding to the authenticity. That plays to the band's claim years ago as being "Nashville's most fucked-up country band." But other times, his vibrato gets to be a little too much. Sometimes it sounds like he's out of breath or doing an Aaron Neville. And he drops syllables periodically, which really gets frustrating in "Kind Of" because the payoff line kind of depends on the adjective.
When the group takes the songs at a Pink Floyd tempo, Mr. M works better in small doses. Half the 12 songs last over five minutes, with two clocking in around seven. Yet, even when they take their time getting to their destination, the band manages to throw in something that keeps you coming back. The long coda of "Gone Tomorrow" brings the slow movement to a crescendo, with what sounds like some guitar noise from the other room seeping into one channel. "The Good Life (Is Wasted)" has an undercurrent of distortion in the arrangement.
All through the album, the strings rarely play with vibrato, and even when they do, the effect is rich and never sappy. Several songs also make good use of angelic, wordless back-up singers, especially in the instrumental "Betty's Overture," which is based on a chord pattern similar to Jobim's "How Insensitive." (Could be another coincidence, but Wagner and his crew seem to be pretty wise to the world of such music.) This cut also has some fuzz bass hiding in the corner, and a great blend of the strings and lower brass.
The album ends with "Never My Love," which is not the Association song of the same name. Instead it acts like a hopeful ending in which Wagner sings about "my stupid love," as a way of being self-deprecating, and insure this love song won't get too maudlin. The approach makes it a more realistic take on the traditional love song, and the back-up vocals, which here sound like a theremin, contribute to the mood.
Mr. M might not be an easy album to get through, but it's pretty engrossing anyway.