Touted as "Nashville's most f*cked-up country band" by their label Merge Records, Lambchop was arguably the most consistently brilliant and unique American group to emerge during the 1990s. Their unclassifiable hybrid of country, soul, jazz, and avant-garde noise seemed at one time or another to drink from every conceivable tributary of contemporary music, its Baroque beauty all held together by the surreal lyrical wit and droll vocal presence of frontman Kurt Wagner. Although Lambchop's ever-rotating roster would later expand to over a dozen members, the group formed in 1986 as a simple three-piece teaming Wagner, guitarist Jim Watkins, and bassist Marc Trovillion, former high school classmates already ten years removed from the educational system. Originally dubbed Posterchild, the trio made its earliest recordings in Trovillion's bedroom, self-releasing a series of cassettes with titles like . In time, the lineup began to grow and the band regularly performed live in and around the Nashville area, often at the area record shop, Lucy's (not coincidentally owned by Wagner's wife, Mary).
As on past Lambchop records, many of the songs on Mr. M are framed with lush strings, and there’s a restrained undercurrent of distortion and discord. The core of the music remains the cyclical picking of Wagner’s guitar and the soft, warm croaking of his voice. The songs are spacious, even dreamy, as on the Countrypolitan instrumental “Gar,” while the lyrics and titles are rich with allusions, some of them obvious, others seemingly unknowable.
In 1992, Posterchild -- now consisting of Wagner, Trovillion, guitarist Bill Killbrew, clarinetist Jonathan Marx, multi-instrumentalist Scott C. Chase, drummer Steve Goodhue, and percussionist Allen Lowery -- released An Open Fresca + A Moist Towlette, a split single with friends Crop Circle Hoax. The 7" brought the group to the attention of entertainment lawyer George Regis, who issued cease-and-desist orders on behalf of his clients, the noise pop band Poster Children. After rejecting the names REN, Pinnacles of Cream, and Turd Goes Back, the band settled on Lambchop, added vocalist/saxophonist Deanna Varagona, steel guitarist Paul Niehaus, and organist John Delworth, and signed to Merge to release the 1993 single "Nine." Their debut LP, I Hope You're Sitting Down (aka Jack's Tulips), followed a year later. In many ways, this album would be the most conventional Lambchop record. Its Nashville origins and torch-and-twang ambience would saddle the band with the increasingly erroneous alt-country tag, although Wagner's Lou Reed-like vocals and bizarre narrative conceits -- in particular the fan-favorite "Soaky in the Pooper," a vivid recounting of a bad LSD trip -- immediately signaled their obvious distance from the likes of Uncle Tupelo or the Jayhawks.
The lovely How I Quit Smoking appeared in 1996 (although on the subsequent "Cigaretiquette" single, Wagner would proudly announce, "I'm smoking again"). Recorded live the previous Independence Day, the Hank EP followed later in 1996. Marking the debut of drummer Paul Burch, the disc represented the apotheosis of Lambchop's Billy Sherrill-inspired phase, its lush production evoking the Nashville sound so popular three decades earlier, but now completely passé among Music City's chart superstars. 1997's Thriller proved a major turning point; highlighted by the Muscle Shoals soul of "Your Fucking Sunny Day" and including no fewer than three songs penned by East River Pipe's F.M. Cornog, this sprawling, difficult album introduced the uncompromising eclecticism that would dominate Lambchop's work from here on out. The follow-up, 1998's What Another Man Spills, upped the ante further; for remarkably soulful covers of Curtis Mayfield's "Love Song (Give Me Your Love)" and Frederick Knight's "I've Been Lonely for So Long," Wagner's baritone drawl even gave way to a Prince-like falsetto. That same year, the group also backed Vic Chesnutt on his album The Salesman and Bernadette.