Originally published in The Worcester Journal on April 3, 2015
At 25 years old, Aly Spaltro is no stranger to the small ironies and binaries of modern life. As her moniker, Lady Lamb, suggests, there’s a powerful sense of grace in her music and persona, alloyed with the sweetness of a teenage girl who shyly started teaching herself to play guitar and experiment with making music in the after-hours of her part-time job at a video rental store. Since these early undercover days, Spaltro has come a long way. “I ain’t no warrior or king,” she roars in the final chorus of “Vena Cava,” the opening number on her second studio album After (Mom+Pop Music). Knowing that anyone who has heard her work would beg to differ, she is quick to qualify, adding, “But how I am one when I sing.”
I was first introduced to Lady Lamb The Beekeeper (a name that came to her in a dream, and which has since been shortened) as a senior in high school, when she was hardly known beyond the corners of our shared state, Maine. Her first studio album, Ripely Pine (Ba Da Bing! Records) came out shortly after I started college and experienced a rapid procession of feelings from first-breakup devastation to homesickness to newly-found self-reliance and spirit. Spaltro recently told Nylon magazine that she can now see the songs on Ripely Pine as “very dramatic” and “kind of all over the place emotionally,” but at the time I felt that lines like “You make me into an egg without yolk” and “I still need your teeth round my organs” were written specifically for me.
Ripely Pine was almost all I could stand listening to that year. With an offhand blend of unusually long and uniquely structured songs, Spaltro’s first album covers a range of adolescent attitudes, from the intimacy, betrayal, and complexity of “young love” (I really hate this phrase, but what else do you say when someone’s young and in love?) to a pure and quiet affection for her family.Almost all Ripely Pine’s songs can be seen this way: is it about love, or family? Heartbreak or home? Even in these simplistic terms (or perhaps, especially), it’s easy to see why the album would speak so much to a kind of dramatic, very emotionally-all-over-the place 19-year-old; as the composer and wordsmith of such lyrically beautiful and universal expressions, hopefully Spaltro isn’t embarrassed by that.
With this in mind, After seems an appropriate title for the follow-up. Listeners expecting a development, a grown-up looking back at a distance to her reckless teenage years, might very well feel satisfied with After. With a sleeker stage name, succinct song titles, and shorter song lengths, Spaltro shows some real adult-like temperance and maturity (like her debut, After has only three songs that even come close to acceptable radio-standard length, but lacks the added boldness from Ripely Pine’s five songs stretching over the five-minute mark). The twelve-track album is more polished in both mixing and vocal quality, with nothing that comes near to the raw voice cracks in “Regarding Ascending the Stairs” or the sung-screamed lyrics of “Crane Your Neck.” Only two songs explicitly deal with romantic relationships as Ripely Pine did, with the rest either crossing into home and family territory or leading listeners somewhere else entirely.
The recurring words and images in the lyrics are telling: apples, ghosts, and airplanes; birds, blood, and Jesus. Indeed, her infatuation with the vocabulary of eating, death, and animals is reminiscent of the major motifs in the literary nonsense genre of Alice in Wonderland creator Lewis Carroll and adapted by the likes of Emily Dickinson, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles. Oranges and nectarines (not to mention strawberry cake) appear, as does chewing, gnawing, and most prominently, starving. Lines like “I could be cracked open like a cartoon watermelon” demonstrate Spaltro’s stomach for potentially gruesome imagery combined with the comical, almost like Wallace Stevens. As with Stevens, playing with the notion of death is clearly important to Spaltro as well, as images of ghosts, skulls, and graves intermingle with her details of ordinary life and often descend through nonsense surrealism into absurdity. “You will become your most favorite color” is her idea of death (from After’s poignant “Sunday Shoes”), while disembodied descriptions like “You with the watercolor eyes, you who bares all your teeth in every smile” are distinctly whimsical and evocative of Carroll’s Cheshire Cat.
And although cats have yet to appear in one of Spaltro’s songs, she does show a Carrollian affinity for creature comparisons, incorporating such “rabid beasts” and “handsome animals” as mice, wolves, dinosaurs, and alligators into her often surreal imagery and metaphors. Deer, ants, whales, and lions appear, but Spaltro’s true affection is for birds–crows, vultures, sparrows, and now an eagle with a fish in its beak. Often, hand in hand with these animal allusions are bodily references to limbs, organs, and bones. Spaltro’s attention to details of the body makes each song feel like a dissection as she severs eyes from their sockets, ribs from their cages, spines and clavicles from their exquisite bones structures. Even after severing the parts she needs, though, the body is often further disfigured by incorporating the language of animals into its description; just as Ripely Pine’s opener “Hair to the Ferris Wheel” has such lines as “It’s a zoo in your room when you part your lips” and “Let’s crawl all over one another like crows on a carcass,” the fairly existential “Spat Out Spit” furthers and exemplifies the thematic association between the human body and an animal one. “Animal hearts, pumping that animal, animal blood,” Spaltro sings lightly and low, leading into the main question of the refrain: “Was I born wild? Have I been asleep this whole damn time, dreaming up a life? Will I awake to find that I’m deep in the woods and I’m snarling on all fours?” This chorus actually brings up other themes in the Lady Lamb catalogue, from the viewing of humans as savage animals to the recurring ideas of infancy, sleeping, and dreaming. Newborns appear almost as often as apples, and the repetition of “asleep” and “awoke” throughout both albums reinforces her uncanny ability to make even unremarkable details of life feel like a dream.
More so than these perennial images, though, it is clear that what has remained consistently important across Lady Lamb’s discography thus far–and is even more prominent in the new album–is her love for home and her family. The language of travel weaves throughout her songs, but when it’s about love, the plane crashes, the ship wrecks. When the song leans towards home, nostalgia takes over and we are painted a golden map of Spaltro’s memories, spanning from her New England roots in Maine and New York to Arizona and Arkansas. Her parents, sister, and brother are all mentioned, and always in tender solo songs featuring only Spaltro and her guitar. “Ten” comes near the end of After, an ode to home ripe with affection for her sister, best friend, and mother. The song was the closer to Lady Lamb’s recent album release shows in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine, and it left the audiences the thought that “there’s a sweetness in us that lives long past the dust on our eyes, once our eyes finally close.” After all is said and done, after the droughts, gore, crashes, slaughter, swords, and pistols, she knows where she ends up, and she knows where she comes from.
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