[13 March 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Twenty-three-year-old Brooklyn resident Aly Spaltro, who records under the “band name” Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, has quite the intriguing tale when it came to finding her muse and an outlet for it. While living in Brunswick, Maine, she worked for four years at Bart’s & Greg’s DVD Explosion rental shop and toiled the 3 to 11 p.m. shift. When she was done her work and locked up the store, she’d pull out her guitar and assorted gear from behind a wall of movies, and write songs until the crack of dawn. She did this for some time, and then started making bedroom recordings of her work. Whether it was shyness or humility, she would sell those recordings in the DVD shop and the record store next door, but never told her customers that the person making these songs was, indeed, her. So she toiled in anonymity, but that should all change with her first proper studio album, Ripely Pine. It is an astounding collection of 12 songs that reach for the gut and never let go throughout its lengthy running time: two of the songs reach the seven-minute mark, another two are more than six minutes, and still another two surpass five minutes in length. Some may carp that it is a smidge too long, and, yes, it can be slightly exhausting to listen to, but this is an LP you can clearly get lost in and meander with—and, hey, you’re getting your money’s worth here. Listening to this album is like taking a long car ride with no destination in particular. In fact, these songs move at odd angles, play with tempo, and are stunningly arranged. There’s a real sense of yearning to be found here, a young artist really coming out into her own, and, I would hope, turning her back finally on her years toiling away in a McJob.
Evident on the collection’s first song, “Hair to the Ferris Wheel”, is a sense of longing and pain. “Love is selfish,” Spaltro sings, and she catalogs the ways in which lovelorn young women are pulled into a relationship that they might not be willing to get into: “Take me by the arm to the altar / Take me by the collar to the cliff / Take me by the waist into the water / Take me by the hair to the Ferris Wheel.” She sings this with confidence and knowing, all set against a liquidy guitar line. Here, she comes across as a knowing female version of Johnny Cash, but Spaltro has a trick or two up her sleeve: at the 2:07 mark, the song literally just erupts into a volcanic spurt of bracing indie rock, upping the volume and increasing the tempo, which hammers home the fact that this is clearly an artist willing to experiment and take listeners on a journey into her tormented psyche. Then around the 3:28 point, the song sputters into a jaunty jig, turning around on a dime yet again. This is simply ambition at its best. And then, the song returns to its languid pace and lonesome pining. For such a song that’s nearly five and a half minutes long, there are multiple movements, and pieces that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s thrilling to listen to, and it merely sets the pace for what follows.
I’m going to jump ahead a few tracks to “Regarding Ascending the Stairs”, which I feel is actually the best song on the record—which is probably a detrimental thing to say, as this album does play out like a Greatest Hits sampler, and everything to be found here is clearly solid. (These songs seem to have been kicking around for some time, as evidenced by trolling through Spaltro’s YouTube videos, which go back a few years.) Here, Spaltro sings with a lilt in her voice, a hiccup, as she plucks away a very Sufjan Stevens-esque banjo line. It’s a simple song, there’s not much to it for the first three minutes and thirty seconds, before a squeezebox jumps in and there’s some tambourine shaken. But just when you think things are going to climax there, Spaltro takes another turn and slows the song right down and strips down the sound just to her voice and banjo, the latter gasping and crawling its way back into the melody. The album is full of little surprises like that.
There are other gems to be found within these songs, sometimes at the very end of the tracks. “Mezzanine”, with its stabby violins, actually has a sort of Led Zeppelin-esque breakdown right as the song culminates. It’s a very, very brief moment, but it gives the piece that extra little bit of kick, a little bit of hot pepper, so to speak. And right before the very end of “Crane Your Neck”, Spaltro cuts out the instrumentation, and it’s just her voice, a snap of the fingers, and the occasional splatter of electric guitar, before the piece takes a rocking turn and adds in a very little bit of brass. And when Spaltro sings with a quaver in her voice, “I still need your teeth ‘round my organs,” in the back half of “You Are the Apple”, you can practically envision some poor lad ripping out her heart with his mouth. However, isolating the parts of these tracks doesn’t really do Ripley Pine very much justice, as fun as it is to do so, because the songs can be so sterling and drop-dead gorgeous. “Little Brother”, a soft ballad that’s just Spaltro and her electric guitar, is somewhere between a bedtime lullaby and a hymn. And “Rooftop”, the shortest thing here at just under three minutes, is kind of a indie-rock take on baroque pop with what seems to sound like a harpsichord punctuating the track.
The album’s strengths become all the more apparent the more you listen to it and deconstruct it, breaking down the songs and putting them back together like a master watchmaker. There’s a certain maturity to this material that transcends the author’s young age, and you have to simply be in awe of what writing songs over a four year period in a video store could have wrought. There must be a kind of isolation in cooking up material in such a setting, but also one that could be very welcoming—being surrounded by all sorts of references to movie lore and pop culture. Something must have really rubbed off on Spaltro, as this album proves she clearly has a bulk of material to draw upon and shape into a unified whole. All that can be said after listening to Ripley Pine countless times on repeat is that more people should write their songs somewhere between the drama and horror sections of the shelves of one’s local independent video rental outfit. If the result would be as good as this, the late hours and time spent honing one’s craft all alone would be well worth it to create what amounts to an impassioned and startling debut. Not counting those bedroom demos sold dispassionately, of course.