A curious blend of Bacharach, countrypolitan and just enough rock

Valentine’s Day—the Hallmark holiday best known for chocolates, roses and trying to make “I love you” not sound like canned applause.

One go-to tradition is the personalized mix-disc, songs culled specifically for you and yours because of their various PG-, R- and X-rated associations. And any worthwhile mix should probably include Lambchop, which plays the Grey Eagle with locals Hope and Anchor this Valentine’s Day evening. The loose Nashville cooperative—they’ll be a sextet here—orbits around singer/songwriter Kurt Wagner, a keen-eyed chronicler of matters of the heart.

Tragedy or comedy? Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner has seen enough to know there’s no end to human folly—especially when it comes to love.>

Now 50, Wagner has written some of the most nuanced love songs going during his eclectic act’s nearly two-decade tenure. Yet with his omnipresent trucker’s cap, Buddy Holly glasses and hoarse whisper, he doesn’t exactly exude romantic lead. But the raspy chuckles that punctuate his conversation reflect the knowing eye of a veteran people watcher; Wagner’s seen enough to know there’s no end to human folly, especially when it comes to love. But there’s no nobler undertaking, either.

There are no pat answers in Wagner’s world, and his take on things suggests the interesting stuff is in the grey areas in-between anyway. That’s also reflected musically in Lambchop’s curious blend of easy Bacharach orchestrations, classic countrypolitan, ‘70s soul, and just enough rock to ensure the band remains in that aisle at the record store.  Together with narratives that ennoble the everyday, Lambchop songs tend to sneak into your consciousness rather than floor you.

“Because (love) is part of my life, it enters into the song naturally as opposed to a presupposition,” Wagner quietly explains. “I take note of more commonplace things because ultimately our relationships aren’t always quite as young and exciting as they were once upon a time. But there are all these other things that mature and grow, and also can be quite touching and meaningful.”

After a pause he continues, “now that we’ve alienated all the young people…” He laughs heartily and insists that, nevertheless, he’s “an old softie.”

He’s just not an obvious softie. Last year’s OH (Ohio), the band’s 10th long-player (or 12th, if you count the odds-and-ends collections), is a primer on love as seen through this Lambchop looking glass. Wagner again gets those telling details to reverberate beyond the quotidian, like when he sings of a simple lead pencil in “A Hold of You,” “It can make a list or describe a thought/Can draw a line or note/But it can’t make you respond to this.”

But he’s too strong a writer to milk the inevitable cooling of passion for breakup-drama clichés, or expose his private life in banal spasms of TMI confessionals. Another OH love song, “Slipped, Dissolved and Loosed,” takes its name from Shakespeare’s enigmatic Troilus and Cressida, infamous among the Bard’s plays for its ambiguous standing: Is it one of his tragedies, or one of the comedies?

Wagner chuckles when asked if there’s a Lambchop equivalent of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” but he’s no ideologue—covers of Don Williams’ “I Believe In You” (from OH), and Curtis Mayfield’s “Gimme Your Love (Love Song)” (from 1998’s What Another Man Spills) couldn’t be more straightforward.

“There’s all these different ways to look at love as a writer,” he says. “I think we all try to figure out what serves that notion the best in one way or another. It can be from song to song, or in some cases it happens in the same tune.”

His narratives may not shy from the doubts that invariably creep into long-term relationships, but Lambchop songs really get their glow from the calm of acceptance—and Wagner’s 14 years of marriage suggests he knows whereof he speaks. He says he’s written Mrs. Wagner “quite a few” love songs over the years, but he’s not about to reveal which ones. Fittingly, there are no obvious signposts, either—you’ll just have to figure out your own way around, much like you would in a relationship.

“One of the cool things I found out about being married is that it actually gets better and more interesting as you stick it out,” he says. “When you’re younger and you actually go into that thing, you don’t realize that it can actually change for the better … I’m pretty excited about that development.”

[John Schacht is Editor in Chief for Shuffle magazine and a regular contributor to Blurt Online.]

who: Lambchop with Hope and Anchor
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Saturday, Feb. 14 (9 p.m. $10/$12. 232-5800. www.greyeagle.com)

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