Humble beginnings can make for trouble down the road. Sometimes the charmingly lo-fi recordings that gets the bloggers blogging turns out to be just the fledgling sounds of a band that isn’t ready, and that immaturity shows once they crank out a “proper” debut. (Remember the Black Kids, anyone?)
So North Carolina native Steve McLamb, who began the Love Language as a home-recording project, could have fallen into the same boat with his Merge debut, Libraries. His debut eponymous Love Language album was a collection of fuzzy, lo-fi pop and, since he wrote the whole set for his ex-girlfriend, sharp with the edge of heartbreak. It was an immediate album, one that didn’t feel like it reflected on dark times so much as it relived them or listed them as they were happening.
But with Libraries, McLamb makes no attempt to revisit the humble formula of his first record, and by stretching out he has proven he’s the real deal. These songs are big, bursting-at-the-seams pop songs. But the riffs are tight, the melodies sweet, and McLamb is front and center as an arresting and charming performer. In fact, in a lot of ways, Libraries sounds like what The Love Language could have been. On that record, the fidelity held McLamb’s voice back, while hear his Mozz-esque curling croon bursts out of every song. On the opener, “Pedals,” the lush, string-laden tune stops in its tracks to let him belt out the first line of the record, grabbing our attention right off the bat — and from there the album holds it at every turn.
Certainly, Phil Spector’s wall of sound has quite a bit to do with the thick sonic layers of this record, but this doesn’t sound like revivalism. Beneath all the strings and dripping keys, these are lean pop songs, both youthful and restless. From the blue-light shuffle of “The Blood Is Our Own” to the bright bounce of “Anthophobia” to the spacey thump of “Wilmont,” this album manages a a striking variety, while still finding a uniform sound, one that ripples beautifully out from its solid center.
And now, distanced from the fresh wounds of that first record, McLamb really shines as a songwriter. He’s still got that lovelorn side, but he cuts it here with a much-welcome dose of wit. Sometimes it feels self-deprecating, like in “Heart to Tell” when he sings, “Some fools rush in, some fools just wait.” Or it can take on a darker edge, like in the excellent “Horophones,” when he sings, “If all good children go to heaven, then all good children die.”
It’s these new elements in his songwriting, and the sonic heft of Libraries that both echo the talents apparent on The Love Language and expand on them in all the right ways. Despite the size of this sound, McLamb and producer BJ Burton show a mature knack for employing enough restraint so that the huge production never overwhelms the songs themselves, and instead lets McLamb’s performance shine. This record is the sound of a young musician being given the right chance at the right time and knocking it out of the park. I suppose it shouldn’t be all that surprising that a North Carolina native sounds at home on Merge, but what is surprising is how, given all the new sounds he’s trying here, McLamb makes it sound so effortless.