To those who embraced 2000’s Nixon—Lambchop’s fifth album, whose luscious country soul grooves provided the sprawling Nashville collective with a significant British breakthrough that even found them selling out London’s 2,500-capacity Royal Festival Hall—the deceptively gentle Is a Woman, delivered two years later, administered a quiet but compelling shock. Gone almost entirely was frontman Kurt Wagner’s euphoric, Curtis Mayfield-esque falsetto, replaced by a tranquil, contemplative vocal style; and instead of the joyfully warm brass arrangements that had encouraged Zero 7 to remix “Up With People,” one of Nixon’s standouts, pianist Tony Crow now took center stage, teasing out gentle, ingenious melodies. The contrast was acute.
To discover the true spirit of Is a Woman, however, one need only listen to the remarkable “My Blue Wave,” one of the band’s finest recordings to date. Here, Wagner depicts a world of helpless tragedy in which comfort can nonetheless be found in the smallest of gestures, as he journeys from the contented sight of his pets—“You lay around the house… Just bones and squirrels inside your head”—to recollections of a devastating phone call from friend and bandmate William Tyler: “And William called and tried to tell me / That his sister’s boyfriend has just died / He’s not sure what to do / And I’m not sure what to tell him he should do / Sometimes William, we’re just screwed / In my blue wave.”
Fifteen years later, Lambchop continue to confound and astound in equal measures, but this startlingly private song captures the magic of Is a Woman at its most distilled. With their sound consistently shifting and surprising, the band’s line-up has morphed and adapted repeatedly since then, but the lingering mood of lachrymose but compassionate elegance of “My Blue Wave” helps explain why this extraordinary, idiosyncratic record is now considered to be one of the band’s finest. As Wagner himself asks on “Bugs”: “Think of things and how they got this way / Way above the rest / Isn’t this the fucking best?”