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.
Here’s the last drop of tunes from January. On to February!
1. “Bad Blood” – Fred Thomas. This is the indie rock equivalent of an LCD Soundsystem song: deep bass groove, highly emotional lyrics in a speak/sing milieu, unexpectedly hooky melodies from unusual places. It’s basically the promise of indie rock 1979-1992 coming to fruition. Damn.
2. “Story of My Life” – Martin Sexton. Yes, this is a One Direction cover. It basically sounds like One Direction covered Martin Sexton. Yes. You need this in your life.
3. “Soul Shine” – Sam Joole. In addition to smooth singer/songwriter stuff, Joole does reggae. I don’t cover reggae, but this one is so smooth and includes such infectious horns that it stole my heart. Mad props.
4. “Bells and Buzz” – Matt and the McCues. If you were listening to early ’00s indie-pop (verses), ’90s alt-rock (chorus) and bass-heavy ’80s indie-rock (breakdown!) on three stereos at once, you’d end up with this track. It’s an unusual stew, but Matt and the McCues make it work.
5. “If Only” – Ships Have Sailed. If you’re looking for pop-rock with an artsy bent (but not too artsy, you want to sing along, right?), Ships Have Sailed is showing themselves as a solid bet. Get your head-bob and hum on with this great track.
6. “Following the Plan” – Bellwire. Noisy, jangly guitar-pop with Guided by Voices vibes and unironic “whoo-hoo-hoo!”s in it: who can ask for more in a pop song?
7. “Upside Down” – Lime Cordiale. If The Killers, MGMT and Muse all collaborated on a track, they couldn’t come up with something more towering than this.
8. “Pins” – Natalie McCool. Like a grittier Lorde, McCool is on the fast track to a lot of people knowing who she is.
9. “MAD” – Honey & the 45s. Funky, sassy, soulful, gripping: this band knows how to make that old-school soul live.
10. “Spat Out Spit” – Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. Lady Lamb is endlessly fascinating in her lyricism, song construction, and arrangements. Her newest track is no disappointment on any of those fronts.
11 “Hammer and a Nail” – Vienna Ditto. This slinky, enticing, cinematic track is like soul and film noir all wrapped into one. Awesome.
12. “Paying” – Sarah Bethe Nelson. If you’re a fan of long, minimalist folk-type tunes OR singer/songwriter women OR despondent rock tunes from the ’70s OR good things, you’ll be all up in this.
13. “Safe” – Emily Ann Peterson. Raw, deep emotion expressed in a piano-and-vocals one-take, complete with hall gorgeous reverb and all.
14. “Electric” – Föllakzoid. Y’know, I’m usually not into Chilean deep groove, psychedelic, bass-heavy dance vibes, but this one sucked me in and kept me going for twelve minutes. Twice. Going on a third time.
3. “Picture Picture” – Tall Tall Trees. Kishi Bashi contributed strings to this giddy, major-key alt-hip-hop/singer-songwriter’s tune. It’s pretty amazing.
4. “Billions of Eyes” – Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. Lady Lamb opens her sophomore campaign with a tour de force grower that moves toward indie-rock, away from the Neutral Milk Hotel-ish psych, and maintains the inscrutable, impressionistic lyrics she’s known for.
5. “Laurel Trees/21 Guns” – Jet Plane. The opening moments of this 10-minute post-rock piece mix fragile strings and bagpipes with grumbling guitar noise to set the scene. The rest of the tune is a leisurely unfolding track that follows that same pattern, albeit with more clean guitar.
6. “New Year’s Retribution” – More Than Skies. What if Tom Waits had played in a punk band and adopted modern folk arrangements to go along with it? This sad, pensive 8-minute track has twists and turns galore.
7. “Lo and Behold” – Sarah Marie Young. More and more people are picking up vintage vocal styles and combining them with modern instrumental styles. Young has a crooner’s voice added to some funky R&B bass and keys, making for a smooth, head-bobbing track.
8. “Pores” – Hand Sand Hand. “Rumbling” is what I call things that sound ferocious but never get a sharp, brittle edge. This post-punk track presses forward with all the power of a much heavier band and keeps me glued to my seat.
The album is not endangered, but it certainly hasn’t been as interesting to me as EPs this year. That’s not because people aren’t making good albums, but because people have been seriously upping their EP game. Still, there are a bunch of great albums that came out this year that rightly deserve praise.
10. Talker – Dear Blanca. Frantic alt-country with unusual instrumentation (saxophone!) and influences.
9. Third Generation Hymnal – Venna. Passionate, female-led modern folk that balances earnest performances and high-quality songwriting deftly.
8. Forty Bells – Brave Baby. This is what indie-rock sounds like in 2013: chiming guitars, pushing rhythms, yawping vocals, and a great sense of atmosphere to cap it all off.
7. Ripely Pine – Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. In the best debut of the year, Aly Spaltro has crafts whole worlds in her songs. Her winding, unexpected, sensational arrangements are matched with her powerful, even shocking voice. Incredibly unique, incredibly strong.
6. Wolf Eggs – The Parmesans. Three guys in a room playing easygoing, charming bluegrass/folk. All the trapping you’d expect in bluegrass are here (harmonies, solos, riffing, goofy asides), and they bring poignant, romantic lyricism to the tunes as well.
5. The Weatherman – Gregory Alan Isakov. Gentleness that doesn’t fade away into blandness is rare, and Isakov has crafted a wonder of a quiet album here. These songs just make me smile.
3. Everything All at Once – Jonny Rodgers. Jonny Rodgers uses the ethereal tones of tuned wine glasses as the basis of his indie-pop sound, but the rest of the arrangements and Rodgers’ high, soaring voice complete the beautiful sound. I’ve not heard anything like this before. Throw in intimate, personal lyrics and you’ve got an impressive work.
2. The Beast in Its Tracks – Josh Ritter. Ritter is a master lyricist, and he turns his pen to the fine details of his divorce. But instead of weeping, he celebrates what life comes thereafter. It’s a rare look inside the life of an artist from an unusual perspective. The fact that he’s one of the best folk songwriters working today helps: the songs here are light but not insubstantial, upbeat but not flippant, and romantic without being maudlin. This is Ritter’s first must-own work since the amazing The Animal Years.
1. Chronographic – Filbert. As a reviewer, I have set expectations of genres. Filbert blew up my frameworks for folk, singer/songwriter, indie-pop, and hip-hop, which resulted in a breathless review that I still fully believe. “Modest Mouse + Jeffrey Lewis + backpack rap + Bon Iver = Filbert” is a reductive way to say it, but it’s still true. This was easily the most inventive album of the year.
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?
It’s that time of the year again: the end of it. So here’ are my last two 2012 singles mixes before the Best Of lists drop later this month.
1. “Still Analog” – The March Divide. Perky acoustic pop with a snide edge and snapping. Dare you to not smile.
2. “Alright OK” – Ocean Transfer. Reggae, pop-rock and even some funk come together for a fun tune.
3. “Swimsuit” – Cayucas. I’m pretty sure this was written on a surfboard.
4. “Rooftop” – Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. Peppy indie-pop with some folk sensibilities, capped off by a powerful alto vocalist.
5. “Time Keeps Dripping” – Emil Lager. Fans of The Tallest Man on Earth will appreciate the raspy vocals and fingerpicked styles of Lager.
6. “Retaliate” – City Reign. The yearning vocals here are what get me in this acoustic tune.
7. “Land” – Joyce the Librarian. The vocal harmonies, cello work and brass set this stately folk tune apart.
8. “This Love Won’t Break Your Heart” – Annalise Emerick. One of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard all year incorporates “Auld Lang Syne” into its gentle folk arrangement. The build-up to the end of the song is simply heart-pounding.
Moody Rock/Electronica Mix
1. “Each to a Grain” – Light Company. Dreamy post-rock, thumping modern rock, distorted bass and melodic vocals create a unique tune.
2. “The Hunter” – Their Planes Will Block Out the Sun. Tight, dark indie-rock with everything in its right place.
3. “All My People Go (Budo Remix)” – Kris Orlowski and Andrew Joslyn. This highlight track from their recent EP gets a bit of a remix, adding a bit (but not too much) of an electronic edge.
4. “Song for Zula” – Phosphorescent. The lead track off Phosphorescent’s upcoming album ties together strings, beats, and an incredibly emotive vocal performance.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.