21 Apr 2019

Lambchop & Tiny Ruins

From New Horizons, 5:00 pm on 21 April 2019

William Dart draws some connections between new albums from Kurt Wagner's Lambchop and Hollie Fullbrook's Tiny Ruins.

Kurt Wagner, Hollie Fullbrook

Kurt Wagner, Hollie Fullbrook Photo: Supplied/Georgie Craw

Various Lambchop albums peppered New Horizons fairly regularly back in the 90s and 00s, but 2012's Mr M, for some reason, was my last. Not that I’ve missed much. We’re not talking about a mega-prolific band like Guided by Voices, bringing out multiple albums a year.

Lambchop has only come up with two full-length collections in the seven years since Mr M and, superb though 2016’s FLOTUS was, with Kurt Wagner, the core man of the band, exploring the new technology of the time, the CD sat patiently and guilt-inducingly on my “to do” shelf.

FLOTUS is more than just electronic gimmicry, even if Wagner’s use of Vocoder voice effects might jolt some hardcore fans. There are still numbers like "Writer", reminding us that this man takes old-fashioned songcraft very seriously. So much so that he even writes songs about songwriting.

Lambchop’s FLOTUS was an unanticipated adventure, an attempt not only to come to terms with current technology, but to integrate it into Lambchop’s sonic world. At the time, Wagner credited new group member Andy Stack for making this possible, proving that technology is, basically, just another instrument, just another sound.

During 2017, the discoveries of FLOTUS fuelled and coloured the band’s live performances. Inevitably, older songs had to be technologically tinted. After all, their writer told us, songs are not things frozen in time or tempo ... and pulling them out for a bit of a re-think gives the musicians the pleasure of covering themselves.

The new Lambchop album, released just a few weeks ago, gives the impression of another goal having been achieved. Its title says as much in just eight words: This (is What I Wanted to Tell You).

There’s a new helpmate on board, percussionist Matt McCaughlan, to help stamp the new sound, in a line-up alongside pianist Tony Crow and bass man Matt Swanson.

So, for all the techno touches, there are still some forceful musicians backing up Wagner when he sings. Which he does, at some length, on a number of tracks, including this trip through recent American history in a song titled "The air is heavy and I should be listening to you".

The final number on Lambchop’s new album is its shortest.

Titled simply "Flower", it minimises the techno patina that, for some, might intrude on longer songs. Electronic washes and ghostly shimmers are kept well in the shadows behind Wagner and his guitar.

Only in his final plea does darkness intrude.

With a new Tiny Ruins album to hand, it’s impossible to forget, just five years ago, the crucial connection between Kurt Wagner and our own Hollie Fulbrook.

In 2014, the American, recovering from surgery, wrote a full and vivid review of the Tiny Ruins album Brightly Painted One. It was a journey of discovery for Wagner, set off by the song "Me at the Museum, You in the Wintergarden".

When I first played this song on New Horizons back in 2014, I was drawn to the fact that it had connections with the singer’s own life. Fulbrook had worked at Auckland Museum and I was impressed by its muted nostalgia, looking back to times when one didn’t feel old and always felt warm. I commented how her innocent strum and waifish voice combined well with clever and knowing key-shifts that threatened to pull the song into some sort of grand romantic gesture, but were always foiled from doing so.

Kurt Wagner’s praise of Fulbrook’s songwriting nous finds justification in the eleven tracks of her new album Olympic Girls.

Once more she finds architecture as a ground for inspiration. Now, instead of Museum and Wintergarden, we have a School of Design, an image which perfectly catches a moment in time, pressed like a flower or butterfly in an old book.

The music flickers around with tricky time changes and tantalising flecks of colour from her band; Fulbrook’s characteristically flat-toned vocals adding an emotional distancing that might not resonate with every listener.

The songs on this new Tiny Ruins album are exquisitely dressed. Hollie Fulbrook is fortunate to have a band of four musicians alongside her who share her own capabilities on a range of instruments – everything from cello and vibes to multiple mellotrons and a good old acoustic piano – adds up to a delicious welter of sound.

In fact, Cass Basil, Alex Freer and Tom Healy were on this programme just two weeks ago backing up Finn Andrews. And, as luck would have it, there’s another Finn to be heard in the Tiny Ruins band: Finn Scholes in charge of hammond organ, vibes and piano.

Listening to the three minutes of "Kore Waits in the Underground", one appreciates the sonic constellation that they provide for a song that charts a drifting away, by two people who chose stars and drones over UFOs.

Set over Alex Freer’s 6/8 swing it’s perhaps more effective heard as a piece beat-styled poetry than as a song that always seems to be holding its lyricism at arm’s length.

While it’s not difficult to appreciate and admire Hollie Fulbrook’s fidgety and restless songwriting, it’s the final track of Olympic Girls that, from the very first listen, tweaked my ear.

"Cold enough to Climb" is yet another entry in a genre popular with many songwriter — the always-to-be-relied-on emotional rift.

Here, a couple drives under smoker-pink skies, meditating on roadside cows, not really making an essential connection. A scenario laid out in a setting that’s cold enough to climb inside your arms ... adding the rueful tag of “in my mind.”

There’s a spaciousness here that I like, with its slow country waltz revealing such utter sadness, doomed and deliberated. All to be heard in the instrumental backdrop which eventually tapers off into an electrified twig of sound, a poignant image for the tragically unachievable.

Music Details

'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
Album title

'Betty’s Overture' (Wagner) – Lambchop
Mr M
(City Slang)

'Kind Of' (Wagner) – Lambchop
Mr M
(City Slang)

'Writer' (Wagner) – Lambchop

'The Air is Heavy and I should be Listening to You' (Wagner) – Lambchop
This (is what I wanted to tell you)

'Flower' (Wagner) – Lambchop
This (is what I wanted to tell you)

'Me At the Museum, You in the Wintergardens' (Fullbrook) – Tiny Ruins
Brightly Painted One
(Arch Hill)

'School of Design' (Fullbrook) – Tiny Ruins
Olympic Girls
(Milk Records)

'Kore Waits in the Underground' (Fullbrook) – Tiny Ruins
Olympic Girls
(Milk Records)

'Cold Enough to Climb' (Fullbrook) – Tiny Ruins
Olympic Girls
(Milk Records)