I KNEW NEXT TO NOTHING about cornpone hucksters Lambchop when their new album, Nixon (Merge), arrived in my mailbox. The thing that caught my eye was the second song, "Grumpus," which seems to be a stick-pin in the heart of the group's collective Craig Ventresco voodoo-doll. Ventresco, known for leading the band Grumpus, is the heppest exponent of the ultra-obscure genre of ragtime punk, which has often been described as "turn of the century meets end of the century." As Grumpus, Ventresco gives tongue-lashings to trendy musicians who try to match his acumen when it comes to so-called "traditional" music. I mean, we're talking about a guy who honestly doesn't think any good music's come down the pike since Mississippi John Hurt. Because both Lambchop and Grumpus are considered "roots" music, they've shared the stage on many occasions. But predictably, the meetings were not harmonious. Once, Grumpus began upbraiding Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner for claiming to be "country" and not owning the right Roy Acuff 78. Wagner retaliated by writing "Grumpus" and commenting, "Oh! He's a damn asshole!"

But Lambchop's billing as "the new sound of Nashville" isn't entirely unjustified, and Nixon is their most ambitious record yet. What else would you call an album featuring a 13-piece collective playing such eclectic instrumentation as Fender Rhodes, vibraphone, coronet, trumpet, and paint can? They also add a string section, and for the gospel knock-off "Up with People," a choir. One can see why Grumpus bristled. Ventresco likes his "roots music" sparse, but these guys, if anything, hark back to those last dying days of AM radio, circa 1974, where, in a time warp, this song would sound perfect sandwiched between the Chi-Lites and Delfonics.

Far from being some kind of roots-rock aggregation, Lambchop strike me as a slick ensemble plying a mixed-bag of retro influences, but ultimately coming into their own as a distinct entity. Grumpus won't be too happy about it, but everyone else should rejoice.

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