Album Review: Lambchop – TRIP

[Merge / City Slang; 2020]

The backstory of an album always serves as an additional clue to forming a better understanding of the artist’s feelings and intentions with the record; it may even be more important for a covers album than for an original work. An LP of covers will inevitably be difficult to enjoy without taking into account one’s view on the original recordings, but some background information helps to push the listener away from this type of perception. Although, the hope is that the background of a record isn’t the defining quality of it – unfortunately, in Lambchop’s case, it is the foremost reason why TRIP gains any amount of depth.

Since the band’s late 2019 tour was going to be unviable, Kurt Wagner came up with an idea for a new record that would creatively and financially help him and the bandmates out of the depressive state that they found themselves in. The leader of the band tasked each musician to pick a track that they would cover, and that musician would lead the recording session for it. This provides a needed explanation for the fact that, in terms of the tracklist, TRIP is on the shorter side than traditional albums, as it only features six songs. Aside from that, this backstory does in fact aid in understanding the record better, and deepens the otherwise rather plain musical effort.

One aspect of the music itself that makes this album a better listening experience is the consistency in sound. The alt-country intertwining with indie folk, reminiscent of their 1996 album How I Quit Smoking, holds true for most of TRIP. These qualities are not novel for Lambchop; they have been praised for their consistency in sound, as a band that has been playing for nearly 35 years ideally should be. What is impressive about their latest record is that this consistency of their unique sound carried over onto covering songs of very different genres from acts like Stevie Wonder, Wilco, Yo La Tengo’s James McNew, and The Supremes. The upsides of TRIP practically end at this point.

Lambchop’s new album suffers most from a lack of direction. This is explained by the backstory of the recording, but it had the possibility of becoming an advantage. TRIP, taken as whole and not a mere collection of random songs, lacks interconnectedness. This could be due to the band’s failure in picking covers that have a unifying motif to tie together these tracks, which come from a wide range of genres and themes. The intentionality of the record is only shown in the backstory of it, but does not exactly wind up expressed in the music itself. In brief summary, TRIP sounds like a select number of performances of similar-sounding artists on Triple J’s Like A Version were put together into a record.

Cover albums are a dangerous terrain that not many artists decide to tread; they are difficult in execution due to the obvious reason of attempting to unify a collection of tracks that were not meant to be compiled into one (unless a cover album is of another full LP). What works for Lambchop in the case of TRIP is the level of consistency in their sound that they were able to achieve through years of playing music together. However, it does not exactly bring the album together, because the tracks are thematically very different, and the band’s decision to apply the same approach to them contributes to the plainness of TRIP. At the end of the day, this album sounds like either a set from a small concert, where the band would decide each song they were going to cover on the spot – or a karaoke night.