Stuart McLamb’s the Love Language started out as a bedroom rock outfit in the most literal sense. After the break-up of his former band, the Capulets, and the relatively simultaneous breakup with his girlfriend, McLamb went on a bender, moved back in with his parents, and began writing songs in earnest. Those songs were only meant to be heard by a few friends and—here’s the bedroom part—his ex-girlfriend, but they went viral and now we’re here at the Love Language’s third long-player, Ruby Red, which will conjure up images of two things: either red wine, or those lovely slippers that Dorothy clicked three times in order to retreat from Oz back to her farmhouse in Kansas. Actually, the title refers to neither of those things: it references a collective artists’ space in Raleigh, North Carolina, where the album was conceived before sessions were moved over to Black Mountain, North Carolina. However, if your impression was that this was an album conceived over drinks, the beverage in question would be champagne. Ruby Red is full of bubbly songs of the sort that some listeners will feel is a little reminiscent of Broken Social Scene, but the effect is certainly much more full bodied. These are pop songs in the baroque tradition of ‘60s pop, and if some of it feels to you as being a little cheesy and nostalgic, like Burt Bacharach mixed in with a little Lawrence Welk, you wouldn’t be far off the mark. Ruby Red aims for a feeling, and that feeling is deftly rooted in the past.
Ruby Red purportedly employed the use of more than 20 musicians, giving the album that collective, BSS feel, and it shows. Opener “Calm Down” starts out like the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” mixed with the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’”, however, once the vocals start up the air turns thick and you’re standing in the middle of a stew of sound. The feeling is jazzy and poppy, and, if you find that you’re somewhere in 1965 with an arsenal of modern recording techniques at your fingertips, you are. And by the time you get towards the end of the song, with its holocaust of sound, you’re inching ever closer to the end of the decade, when psychedelia was moving to the fore. “Hi Life”, meanwhile, expands that aesthetic even more, and you’re left in the middle of a Belle and Sebastian song where the participants are using a Ouija board to converse with the spirit of “What the World Needs Now Is Love”. Strings swoop and are super gooey, and horns blare with the force of a howling tornado. Then, things take a garage-y, menacing turn with the fuzzed out “First Shot”. Sounding like something that emerged from the depths of the British Invasion, “First Shot” sidesteps the pop bliss of the opening trio of songs for something a lot more rock oriented, while retaining the blaring horns and sweeping strings. At this point, Ruby Red turns itself into heavily orchestrated rock.
There are other twists and turns to be had throughout Ruby Red, though none are perhaps more pronounced than “For Izzy”. Starting out with a whistled intro (shades of “Young Folks”, that other, more recent nod to pop’s pastoral past), the song is rather zither-like, and you wind up wondering if you’ve walked onto the set of a Spaghetti Western. The slightly more than two minute follow-up, “Faithbreaker”, feels as bashed out as an early Nick Lowe song, further fermenting that British feel that the album reaches for. “On Our Heels” is more like a disco song with its dovetailing strings, but, here’s the thing, it’s something that’s impossible to really dance to. Still, there’s a kind of Roxy Music-esque thing happening here, though, admittedly, the song really goes nowhere fast, ending on a guitar freak out. “Knots”, on the other hand, is the one moment on the record that feels particularly BSS-like in feel, though its strings and vibes give off a whiff of that bubbly Bacharach cadence. And “Pilot Light”, which ends the record, seems very ‘70s like, a song that might have been performed by just about any band following in the jazzy power pop void left behind by the Beatles. (In fact, I can’t really get Eric Carmen, or his band the Raspberries, out of my head while listening to this.)
There is undoubtedly the feeling with Ruby Red that this is a meticulously constructed pop album. It seems worked over and worked over again to a point of fine craftsmanship. However, it is so refined to an extent that the vocals seemed buried and the hooks need to be listened to on repeat for them to emerge. That is to say that Ruby Red is a lovely album, but a great deal of it bleeds into itself and it’s hard to find songs that are truly memorable and stick out. In actual fact, when you listen to Ruby Red, you may find yourself strangely emotionless, like you’re being hit on the head with a pop hammer with nary a sense of feeling anything, pleasure or pain, from the process. This is odd, given the overall sense of construction, varnished to a fine point, behind all of these 10 songs. In the end, though, Ruby Red is just pleasantly pleasant, and you could live with or without it. It does nothing to break through the baroque spectrum and give you something as heart wrenching as “Walk Away Renee”. It’s just ... idyllic. And nothing more. I suppose that makes Ruby Red akin to something out of The Wizard of Oz after all. You give yourself a few clicks of your shoes, and you’ll be wishing that you were truly home: embedded in the ‘60s pop past that these songs collectively try to reference but never end up entirely replicating or surpassing. For a man standing behind the curtain, McLamb is strangely an impotent ruler and wizard, at least here on Ruby Red.