Stand by your mania

POP Lambchop 12 Bar Club, London
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A man sat, alone with his guitar, on a stage barely big enough to swing a supermodel. Well, not quite alone. In the enforced absence of the other nine or 10 members of his Nashville-based chamber country ensemble, Lambchop mainstay Kurt Wagner did the next best thing and brought their contributions along with him on cassette tape. This worked surprisingly well, and not just as a conceptual riposte to the phoney intimacy of electronic bands playing gigs down ISDN lines.

For all his misgivings about playing on his own ("It's like a dad going on holiday without the wife and kids," he observed poignantly) Wagner's solo appearance achieved an arresting and at times - as in the extraordinary synthesis of taped and live sound on "Gettysburg Address" quite magical union of hi-fi and lo-fi. His precise, soulful guitar playing and unpredictable but intense vocal phrasing were set off to a tee by the strange assortment of swirling feedback noises and spoken-word excerpts that his band supplied him with. And the pathological shyness of his stage persona only set the distinctive forthrightness of his songwriting in sharper relief.

In the suitably cordial opening "My Face Your Ass", Wagner enunciated the last word of that title as if his life depended on it. Like kindred spirit Vic Chesnutt, Wagner's courtly demeanour amplifies a keen sense of mischief. His songs are alive with deliciously arcane metaphor (for sexual relations: "do the shabby thing with you - separate the beef from the stew"), and his willingness to embrace subject matter that others in the broader country and western fraternity would probably consider a little too audacious is much to be commended. It is fun to speculate how Dwight Yoakam or Jewel say might handle "Scamper" - undoubtedly the most affecting song ever written about trying to lay a wooden floor (Wagner's day job) in the house of an old woman with bladder problems.

A lone island of modernism in a nostalgic musical archipelago, Wagner takes the bulk of his set from the already almost completed follow-up to Lambchop's fine forthcoming album Thriller. If that Michael Jackson- inspired title seems perverse, ask yourself why Wagner has chosen to grace his most upbeat and commercial song to date with the less than radio-friendly title of "Your Fucking Sunny Day"? If your mission in life were to play some of the most compellingly quiet and mysterious music ever recorded and fate had blessed you with the first name of Nirvana's Cobain and the second of the Ring cycle's Richard, perhaps you might feel the same way.