Nostalgia is one of the more misunderstood concepts -- emotions? -- making the rounds these days. I am, regrettably, of the generation currently under the nostalgia-market microscope: the music, television, movies, even ad campaigns of our childhood and youth are being raided by those in the money-making know. None of it was necessarily good in 1984, but time can heal a lot of wounds. And this shallow repackaging of the most base trappings of the past has become our idea of "nostalgia": an unromantic reworking, a knee-jerk reaction to the passing of the decades, and a negative phrase usually pronounced with facial smirks and accompanied by crumb-brushing hand gestures.
But out there in the maddening swirls of our culture, there are remnants of a nostalgia that demands attention by virtue of its romantic disassociation from the present, and lack of marketable anachronism. Since I was a kid, certain tastes and sights -- and most of all sounds -- have sent me into a kind of comfortable numbness, to borrow a phrase. Later I'd learn that this same mental and physical disembodiment was for sale on street corners and at naughty pharmacists, but why bother when the same mind-and-body high was available from a certain kind of candy? Or when Astral Weeks could do it time and time again, all for one price?
When Lambchop's Is A Woman came out in 2002, it was revelatory in its old-fashioned take on nostalgia: Regardless of its bizarre (i.e. very Lambchop) lyrical content, and its nods to alt-country and indie-pop, Is A Woman wasn't exactly out of place, because it had no place. Its touchstone, for me, was Veedon Fleece -- Van Morrison's somewhat-unrecognized masterpiece, more brilliantly confused than confusing. (That was just me: Anyone susceptible to Lambchop's twisted musical cunning will find their own language to translate the it into.) Is A Woman offered not even the hint of an answer, but seemed not to ask questions, either -- a je ne regrette rien rhetoric for people who wanted a little drugged-out lyrical content and subtlety mixed into their feeble pride.
So it's with great joy that I cast aside once again my packet of codeine tablets in favor of the painkilling nostalgia for times unseen of Lambchop's Aw Cmon and No You Cmon -- the Elvis and Jesse twins of Lambchop ringleader Kurt Wagner's furrowed brow. Not that either of these records is stillborn; rather it seems that one follows the intricate sadness of the other with confusion and unrest. And maybe a bathroom stash.
"Steve McQueen" sums up the luxuriantly sad majesty of Aw Cmon in the vaguely titled song's first line: "And if I never live / to see another day / I guess that'd have to be alright / by me." (Wagner recalls McQueen as the first superstar he remembers dying of lung cancer.) Wagner's acquiescence on Aw Cmon is thorough, but not tragic. Lambchop's Aw Cmon songs lay reminiscing in beds of lavish strings, and '70s-soul and countrypolitan Nashville arrangements that call for snow days and rainy drives. Through all the pop-culture references and inside jokes (instrumental "Timothy B. Schmitt" is named for Poco, because of the "overbearing cheesy quality" of the song), Lambchop has managed to make that relaxingly, almost comfortingly sad kind of record. Yet it is one that transcends the "bathtub rock" made by the Belle's of the ball, and lives outside of the pop-world constraints of retro.
And more importantly, with No You Cmon, Wagner and his fluctuating Lambchop lineup answers their own inadequacies and mental disturbances. It's not that No You Cmon is exactly happy. It's not that it's even a radical departure from Aw Cmon's anachronistic big production values and nostalgia-trip composition. (Each begins, after all, with thematically identical, string-laden instrumental country/R&B crossovers.) But even when singing about "The Problem" or "Low Ambition," Lambchop's rhythms on No You Cmon seem punchier, a little more awake in the now -- a little less room-spinning and more legally allowed to operate heavy machinery. (Plus, a song like "Shang a Dang Dang" probably would've gotten chased out of Aw Cmon, whereas it fits perfectly here.)
I can't imagine that anyone is going to rush out to buy one of these albums. Lambchop's fans, particularly in the group's American homeland, are a cultish bunch. But it still seems good to point out that each album stands on its own, yet seems more whole when shelved next to its brother. As the twin pills of contemporary musical secession, you'll want to have No You Cmon to pull you out of the rabbit hole that Aw Cmon might send you down.