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Lady Lamb: Whiplash Brilliance

April 17, 2015

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There is no one quite like Aly Spaltro, and there is nothing quite like After. Spaltro burst on the scene as Lady Lamb the Beekeeper with with the almost overwhelmingly brilliant mindbender Ripely Pine in 2013. Two years later, she’s returned with a shorter name (Lady Lamb) and a new album that tightens up her already incredibly fine-tuned indie rock. After is a musical and lyrical powerhouse that should establish her as a talent with enough ideas to keep going for the long term.

It’s reductive to label After a breakup album, but the title invites the reference. Tunes like “Vena Cava” and “Batter” reference a split off-handedly or obliquely, while “Milk Duds” lays out the loss in raw detail. But it’s not the process of breaking up that is documented; instead, After is an accounting of the emotions that appear or return after the end of a relationship. It’s an emotional exploration of the territory that Josh Ritter’s post-divorce album The Beast in Its Tracks accounted for in concrete, physical spaces. There are multiple references to the tiny details of life that she has suddenly noticed: singles “Spat Out Spit” and “Billions of Eyes” both discuss train rides and their attendant emotional revelations; hair braids, shoes, and all manner of animals are minor characters; food is a constant metaphor.

Animals and food aren’t new territory for Spaltro. Ripely Pine included tons of references to those topics as well, both lyrically and visually. The phrase “crane your neck” makes a significant return, as well. But as much as there are threads connecting these two albums, there are vast territories separating them. Sometimes the territory is lyrical and literal: trains, planes, and cars move people around, while Arkansas, Maine and Vermont might be the places they are going. These lyrics are rich, deep, and visceral; they are not your typical breakup lyrics.

They’re not your typical lyrics in general. Spaltro’s image-heavy lyricism never becomes so idiosyncratic as to be effectively dadaist or surreal; instead, these tunes feel like the most vivid memoirists’ work, inviting you in to an experience that you can share. Ripely Pine was an occasionally inscrutable, impressionistic affair: After seems to have fiddled with the knobs and brought everything into focus. And whoa, what a picture.

And whoa, what a sound! The territories between the two albums don’t just range to lyrical differences. Ripely Pine celebrated fractured, passionate, highly intricate songwriting almost to the exclusion of relatability: it was a towering artistic achievement that served as a big boom from a new artist. After takes the complex work and fits it into the service of emotional narratives. The balance of fantastic arrangements and lyrical relatability is much closer to equal, although Spaltro’s voice will always make the mundane seem majestic.

Yet there’s still a giddy charge that emits from these tracks. “Violet Clementine” is as whiz-bang hectic and technically impressive as anything she’s ever written, incorporating a loping bass line that turns into an ominous guitar line (complete with whirring organ). Another section sees her duetting with a male voice, then a noisy choir; it smash-cuts into a brand new tempo and mood. It’s catchy in the weirdest of ways. Opener “Vena Cava” shows her in full flower, whipping back and forth from singer/songwriter quiet to garage-rock loud with unexpected lyrical turns throughout.

Elsewhere, she has straightened out some of the curls and eccentricities of her songwriting into indie-rock songs that focus on her dramatic, powerful voice (“Billions of Eyes,” “Milk Duds”). “Batter” is a garage-rock stomp through and through. “Sunday Shoes” is a vulnerable fingerpicked tune. These tunes are just as compelling as the more wild ones, displaying a different sort of confidence. We knew she could write stuff we couldn’t; now we know she can write the stuff we do write better than we do. In short, talent abounds throughout.

I could keep writing about After for a while. It’s got complexities all in and throughout it, like a complex jewel or a particularly large painting. Lady Lamb’s ability to command attention musically and lyrically is impressive, and the resulting songs are ones that won’t let you leave for long. After is a remarkable achievement that I expect to see on my year end lists.

Lady Lamb the Beekeeper produces an absolutely captivating album

February 11, 2013

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As a music journalist, it’s impossible to cover any particular genre in its entirety–and that galls me. I want to know everything. One way that critics get around this is by having refined and efficient means of finding that stuff which will blow our (and your) minds. Another is by dedicating no more than a week or two to the note-gathering section of review writing. But an album as richly expansive as Lady Lamb the Beekeeper‘s Ripely Pine demands more than the average amount of time to parse its depths. Without getting hyperbolic (“You don’t just listen to this album, it listens to you,” etc.), this album is wildly engaging both musically and lyrically, shining a light on an idiosyncratic, fearless musician who could have an incredibly bright future.

The first thing to note about Lady Lamb the Beekeeper is that she has a commanding, distinct presence. Aly Spaltro writes with a powerfully feminine voice: she describes things in ways that men would not. This is the sort of absolutely fascinating work that we need to celebrate: these’s aren’t just men’s songs from a woman’s perspective; these are a woman’s songs. Too often we are treated to “the other side of the story” when really I just want to hear a woman’s story. Well, here it is: a 12-song album full of food language and body metaphors to tell intimate tales of interpersonal relationships as a woman sees them. I’m not saying that no one else is doing this; I’m just trying to celebrate the incredible example in front of me.

The lyrics are by turns elegant and powerful, but consistently raw. When Spaltro hollers out, “I need your teeth around my organs,” in “You Are the Apple,” it’s far more sexual and jarringly personal than the explicit come-ons that pop music has routinely produced over the past twenty years. These lyrics cause me to pause and think. These lyrics shake me. It is rare that I can say that.

There are plenty of lyricists who can’t write a song to deliver the words, but never fear: Spaltro applies her unconventional lyrical angle to the music, creating a whirling, roaring album that includes more shifts and turns than I can keep track of. It should be noted that “Rooftop” was chosen as the single almost by default: it’s the track that most closely resembles recognizably normal indie rock. Guitars that alternate between single-note intricacy and chord mashing lock into a rhythm section that largely stays true to a consistent tempo and four/four time. This stability is notable because it almost never happens again.

Spaltro’s best tracks slow down, speed up, pause unexpectedly, and generally wind all over the map (“Crane Your Neck,” “Mezzanine”). This is almost always in service of the lyrics, creating a synthesis of sound and word that allows for maximum tension. Spaltro knows how to keep you hanging, and then how to pay off that tension; if you’re not breathless at the end of “You Are the Apple,” you’re probably doing too many things at once and not paying attention to Lady Lamb.

I don’t know how you could not pay attention, because Spaltro’s alto voice is mesmerizing: she uses her range to its fullest power, able to create a storm where a whisper was prevailing mere seconds before. Her voice inhabits the lyrics, muscling her way through angry tunes and gracefully gliding through quieter ones. In her voice, as with her songwriting and lyric-writing, she exercises an incredible level of control. She leverages what she has to its best ends, and the results are astonishing.

It is rare that an album comes along that absolutely captivates me. Ripely Pine, with its descriptive imagery, devastating vocals, and arresting tunes, is one of a rare few albums per year that make an indelible mark in my brain, like Colin Stetson’s New History Warfare Vol II: Judges and Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor. The same almost-outlandish ambition that powered those two achievements powers Ripely Pine. It’s not that Lady Lamb the Beekeeper is simply doing something different: it’s that she’s doing something so singularly different that she transcends the label for whatever it is she started out as. That is what an artist should do, and that is what Lady Lamb the Beekeeper has done here. Did I mention this tour de force is a debut?

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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