There’s a line in a Boy Without God song that goes “And if you play an instrument, I’m probably a little bit in love with you.” I’m not sure whether there’s some sort of chip that they put in pubescent males when we’re not looking, but it’s almost universally accepted as fact by most young men of quality and standing that if you can play three chords on your older brother’s beat up acoustic, we like you. A lot. The best performers have a way of creating a bridge between stage and audience that makes every listener in the room think that he or she (and only he or she) is being sung to, and that each song was written explicity for his or her ears. This is the pinnacle of the coffeehouse experience, and it’s something that generally only transpires in documentaries about Greenwich Village in the 60s. And yet, I get the same feeling when Lady Lamb the Beekeeper pops up on iTunes.
Lady Lamb the Beekeeper (Aly Spaltro) is one of those rare individuals for whom musical expression is so natural, so inherently part of her being, that she’s able to produce truly moving art with a grace seldom seen at her age (or any age, for that matter). When her plans to travel to Guatamala between high school and college fell through and she was suddenly faced with a year of aimlessness, Spaltro made a conscious decision to begin making music. Under most normal circumstances, this seems like a logical step, but I neglected to mention that prior to making this decision Spaltro had no musical experience. So, she began to assemble her arsenal, beginning not with instruments, but with the means by which to capture her (at this point imaginary) songs–an 8 track tape recorder. That’s right, she bought the recording equipment first. Now that’s commitment.
But she had a clear and simple concept in mind: she wanted to layer instruments, to create songs with an emphasis on sonic texture. When most musicians say something like this, their music ends up sounding like an Animal Collective b-side, or some equally soupy collage of overlapping samples, but not so with Spaltro. Her songs have their origins in folk music and the more delicate side of modern indie pop. A certain innocence pervades them that’s maybe better described as conviction–there’s no sense that she’s “trying” to accomplish anything in particular, but rather creating exactly the songs that she needs to create in exactly the way that she needs to create them. There’s little to no artistic pretension in her music, just a quarter-inch cable from her brain to your stereo.
Spaltro immediately dove into her newfound passion, recording two solo demos in two months while simultaneously learning each instrument needed to tranfer her mental soundscape to tape. Heads up, this next part sounds a bit like the beginning of some rock and roll fairy tale (and let’s hope it is). She left 9 copies of her demo in a brown paper case on the counter of Bull Moose music in Brunswick, ME. 8 of these disappeared, their captors absconding into the ether never to be heard from again; 1 went to TJ Metcalfe, who teamed up with Spaltro and became Lady Lamb the Beekeeper’s all-purpose instrumental accompaniment. Together they recorded a number of new tracks, and culling the best of Spaltro’s early demos, a third album came into being: For Handsome Animals. Now available in a paper case at a record store near you! Or, you know, on iTunes.
The two songs on Lady Lamb the Beekeper’s Ampeater 7-inch straddle the full length of her budding career. Side A “Almond Colored Sheets” is her most recently recorded track, scheduled to see a limited CD release on an upcoming album of demos and rarities. Built on the trifecta of banjo, organ, and vocals, “Almond Colored Sheets” is nothing short of spectacular. I chalked up a double digit play count within an hour of this tune hitting my inbox. It opens with the poignantly redemptive, “I was running through a bad dream, but now I can make it out,” which situates the tune in whatever emotional state wavers between lucid dreaming, childhood nostalgia, and genuine longing. It’s as though Spaltro cast a net and captured those little thoughts that dart in and out of your head when you space out on long bus rides.
This tune has all the hooks, well, all the good ones anyways. The banjo provides a solid percussive base while the organ serves up a soothing harmonic drone and some brilliantly placed melodic figures. This foundation frees Spaltro’s voice to be optimally expressive as the song builds towards an inevitable climax. I like to think of Spaltro as a musical sponge, absorbing sounds for the first eighteen years of her life, just knowing that when she reached the appropriate saturation point she’d put all that stored knowledge to good use. She doesn’t disappoint. At about 2:24 in, there’s a dramatic break in the instrumentation as she finishes the verse, “I slipped out of the shower to discover that his mother had taken my towel, so I had to resort to using your old kindergarten t-shirt.” If hearing Spaltro sing the words “your old kindergarten t-shirt” doesn’t instantly recall some long lost flake of memory, please seek medical attention, as you’re officially immune to music.
Side B “Dinosaur Song” is one of Spaltro’s first complete recordings, completed during a time in which she was eager to put her thoughts down on tape even as she was still learning the rudiments of each instrument. The whole tune was written and recorded in less than an hour, and each part was completed in one take. Maybe it’s just Christmas breathing down my neck, but with its haunting vocal opening and sparse guitar, I feel like “Dinosaur Song” could be a bonus track on the Edward Scissorhands soundtrack. Like Jeff Mangum’s recordings as Neutral Milk Hotel, Lady Lamb the Beekeeper’s songs are miniature worlds in and of themselves; to listen is to step inside something truly special, so take your coat off and stay a while. She sings,
I want to fly my soul like a kite,
want to see you walk through that doorway
and into this room where i am waiting for you
you like the sea
and how the sea began with a drop of sweat
soaked into a cloud swiped across the brow of god
and how he rung it out into sharp teeth to scales
and how the carnivore was born
Listening to this song is like reading Catullus’s love poems in alternating lines with Bullfinch’s Mythology–I’m not sure whether I’m hearing love poetry or legend, but either way I like it. The recording can get a bit rough at points, but there’s greatness here. If those 8 mystery owners of the original demo had really listened to the music, if they’d fully stepped into the world of Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, they’d have kept the disc in a safe deposit box–who knows, it might pay for their retirement some day.
OK, maybe that’s a little hyperbolic, but there are big things on the horizon for Lady Lamb the Beekeper. On the heels of her Maine “world” tour (she hit only towns in her home state that share names with countries) this past summer, she began working with producer Alias to create something with a bit more sheen than her self-recorded demos. Truth be told, Spaltro could sing into a transister radio and I’d still buy the record. Having said that, I can’t wait to see her bust out a full band studio album–wonderful, magical things will happen. When I hear these songs, I hear St. Vincent, Karen O, and Feist; but somehow I get the feeling that the day is fast approaching when St. Vincent, Karen O, and Feist will get to hear Lady Lamb the Beekeeper.