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?
History has produced two of the most enigmatic and intriguing albums I’ve heard in a while. Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor used the Civil War as a catalyst for current cultural analysis, while Southeast Engine‘s Canary calls up the Great Depression to give a grounding to its Appalachian folk tunes.
The most immediate track here is “1933 (The Great Depression),” which shares more than just a historical bent with the art-damaged punk band from New Jersey. The jangling saloon piano that underpins Titus rings true in “1933,” giving an fire and urgency that is matched by the roaring guitar, which has a similar fuzzed-out tone to their punk brothers. The difference lies in the drums (not punk), the organ, and the vocals. The vocals are sung in a weary tone ratcheting up to indignation, where the opposite is true of Titus Andronicus.
In short, you can slap “1933 (The Great Depression)” right after “A More Perfect Union” as a great segue into a Josh Ritter tune, and people are gonna think you’re a genius.
But let me dispel any notions that this is the folk Titus Andronicus (although, for real, I’d take that moniker). This is a straight-up Appalachian folk band in many places, which is powerful. It’s bands like these that make me sad when the term folk is bandied about so liberally these days (even by me, I must admit).
The forlorn acoustic guitar beauty of “Mountain Child” sounds like it was ripped out of a forest on the side of some Adirondack peak. The vocal melody is haunting and genuine (at least, as genuine as modern folk gets, but that’s a whole other discussion). The flourishes (violin, sparing piano, background ooo’s) make the tune even more pristine.
The subtlety-eschewing “Adeline of the Appalachian Mountains” features a banjo prominently in its rustic mix, and the addition makes the tune. “Red Lake Shore” has a more urgent feel, but the modern songwriting idea still allows the song to fall firmly within the Appalachian folk tunes surrounding it.
Canary is the sort of album that you have to explore. You can’t just hear it once and know it. The mind-blowing “1933 (The Great Depression)” will reveal immediate payoff, but the rest of the album has to be put on and broken in like a good coat or a pair of work boots. This is an album that, much like its Appalachian forebears, is about being rather than getting there. The tunes have to sit with you and sink in for best appreciation. Imagine you had only dozens of songs at your disposal instead of millions; wouldn’t you get to know those tunes well? Yes. Do the same for Canary. It will reward you.
Independent Clauses has always been a strange beast. I never intended it to be a music blog; I wanted it to be the starting point of a Pitchfork-style website or a Paste-style magazine. So when we did things differently, my thoughts ran thus: “Who cares? We weren’t trying to be like them anyway.” That’s why we would run best-of lists in February, eschew posting MP3s and publish very long articles.
But as people go, so do dreams. Just like mortality isn’t such a terrible bag if you’re ready for it, neither is the death of dreams. Independent Clauses is never going to be the size of Pitchfork, Paste or even Delusions of Adequacy (whom I have worked for and dearly love). And that’s perfectly okay.
To that end, it’s starting to look more and more like an MP3 blog over here, as I am accepting what Independent Clauses has become and embracing it. I’m considering getting some extra hosting for 2011 and throwing down d/ls to applicable tunes on posts. I’m also going to redesign this site as an mp3 blog, then not touch the aesthetics till 2012. I’m also going to start using the first person pronoun instead of the third person. It’s just me here now.
Also, I will cover more Pitchfork-level indie music than I have previously. Independent Clauses used to focus exclusively on undiscovered music, and I will still devote much of my time there. One does not throw the baby out with the bathwater, after all; there will just be more Frightened Rabbit and The Mountain Goats in the bath.
As part of the transition, I will be posting two best-of lists this year: one overall best of, and one of releases Independent Clauses reviewed this year. In the future, I will post one list. Without further adieu, here’s the overall top ten best releases this year.
4. The Suburbs – Arcade Fire. Music world dominance: headlining Madison Square Garden, nominated for album of the year, taking number one on the Billboard Charts. Even if I didn’t like this album it would be in my top ten. It’s a pretty great album, though, even if it does have a few too many ripoffs of The National on it.
5. This Is Happening – LCD Soundsystem. Indie world dominance: James Murphy prophesied his title and then backed it up with tracks that made it so. Easily my favorite LCD album, and “You Wanted a Hit” is vying for “favorite LCD song” status.
6. The Age of Adz – Sufjan Stevens. The man can do whatever he wants and still turn out pure gold. This is easily the most mind-blowing release of the year: it’s hard for me to listen to in heavy rotation because it’s so complex.