For rock bands and hip hop groups in Nashville, national coverage that contains sentences along the lines of “there’s more to Nashville than just country” are nothing new. Within the city’s twang-less music scenes, there’s a sense that Nashville’s hepcats and urbanites would rather distance themselves from their city’s trademark.
Not so for Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner and Nashville songstress Cortney Tidwell. With their KORT collaboration, the pair own up to Music City’s reputation and treat the distinction as a boon rather than a burden. On Invariable Heartache, they present a strong case.
During the ‘90s, Lambchop served as Nashville’s flagship artsy rock band, mixing lounge music’s understated poise with some of post-rock’s flourishes. Throughout the collective’s long history – which continues to produce evocative, left-field goodness – traditional country tropes have been a bedrock. For Tidwell, the two albums released under her name match otherworldly and ethereal textures with effortlessly jaw-dropping vocals. But for all the sonic exploration on those two albums, Tidwell’s foundations as a musician are entwined with Music Row.
The now-defunct country label Chart Records was started by her grandfather, Slim Williamson. Her father, Cliff Williamson, was originally the label’s A&R man, while her mother, Connie Easton, was a Chart recording artist. Eleven of the dozen tracks contained on Invariable Heartache mine that label’s catalog, shining a light on some songs that might have otherwise drifted closer toward obscurity. The lone exception is “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now,” recorded by Connie Easton for ABC-Dunhill and sung here by her daughter. The rest of the album is composed of KORT’s takes on songs previously performed by singers who enjoyed modest success in their day, and others who are probably only familiar to the most ardent of country music history buffs: LaWanda Lindsey, Kenny Vernon, Tom Tall, Dawn Glass, Charlene Davidson and Karen Wheeler, to name a few.
As for how the project came about, Wagner and Tidwell’s teaming wasn’t exactly serendipitous. The two performed a duet called “Society” on Tidwell’s Don’t Let The Stars Keep Us Tangled Up, while she appeared on Lambchop’s most recent album, (OH) Ohio, to join in a cover of “I Believe In You” by Don Williams. The latter may have led to what would ultimately become KORT. The fact that Wagner’s Lambchop and Tidwell’s backing band share a lot of the same personnel probably made things a lot easier too.
For their part, the band is spotless. The majority of the record adheres to the lilting and forlorn brand of country that one might expect from an album called Invariable Heartache. In that context, the musicians know exactly when to get out of the way and let the songs breathe. And while ornamental flourishes are tastefully sprinkled throughout, Wagner’s froggy croon and Tidwell’s arresting performances are obviously the stars of the show. One notable outlier is “Wild Mountain Berries,” which oozes with defiance while the song’s characters get “busy makin’ merries.” For the last minute of the track the band lets loose hoedown-style with nimble precision.
The album’s other deviation is “Penetration.” While none of the songs on Heartache are particularly faithful to the original recordings, this one seems to venture closest to the participants’ own artsier tendencies. Wagner delivers part of the verses filtered and half spoken, while Tidwell’s background “oohs” and “ahs” work texturally the way they would on her own solo albums. While these idiosyncrasies are what make them compelling songwriters, they provide for the closest thing to a misstep found on this album.
Another distinction between the artists’ own tunes and the source material for KORT is the album’s directness. In the past, the two vocalists have been fond of subtle and sometimes obtuse wordplay, but here they reinvigorate simple sentiments that have sometimes fallen into the realm of cliché. There’s the earnestness of proclaiming oneself “Yours Forever” or feeling “Incredibly Lonely.” These emotions are treated as universal conditions, stripped away of any rhinestone-studded or glossy veneer. In doing so they’ve pushed the songs away from the kitschy, half-smirking sort of self-awareness that might have otherwise colored the record. Instead, sincerity sells it.