Sure, expectations for the Love Language’s new album, Ruby Red were high. Their last release, Libraries, is a bit of a masterpiece that would be hard to match. Still, I’m a little surprised at some of the reviews I’ve read thus far: it lacks the “immediacy” and “lo-fi” elements of their first two, is full of unfinished ideas, buried under instrumentation, etc. Well of course it lacks immediacy. It’s their third record! I remember reading some of the exact same things about Pavement’s third record, now widely considered an alt-rock classic, when it was released.
Truth be told, if you were to ask most reviewers what they would think if this were the first record by an unknown local band (and they were being honest with themselves), they would admit it was at least one of the best local releases in a very long time. So enough of that.
It took some time to make Ruby Red. Also typical of third albums, especially with heightened expectations. Yes, songwriter and frontman Stuart McLamb has had a knack for trading band members like baseball cards. And maybe he’s a perfectionist, or isn’t the easiest person to work with. I don’t know. But what I do know from his first two albums is that he‘s a voracious student of pop music from the past century, and he knows how to parlay his lessons into crafting pop songs for the next. McLamb is a guy who’s clearly spent a LOT of time sitting in a corner, on the floor, headphones on, in front of a record player. He’s undeniably schooled in pop history -- great songwriters, singers, producers, and songs. He has the knowledge, and now that he has toys, he wants to play with them. I say let him.
The results, while definitely different in sound from Libraries (and even moreso from the sparse, self-titled debut), are nonetheless exceptional. Ruby Red begins with the driving, summertime rocker Calm Down, a song that speaks to mania and a simple desire to chill. Pounding rhythms are accompanied by clean keys in the chorus, and you could surf this bassline clear to Bermuda. Midway through, it devolves into a hypnotically numbing clash of guitar-bass-drums that, in the cacophony, is in its own way calming.
Next comes Kids, a pretty straight-ahead rock number, if a bit more generic. While it started as my least favorite in the bunch, it’s growing on me with each listen. But with Hi Life, Ruby Red really hits its stride. It’s a throwback to late 60s/early 70s pop that is perhaps McLamb’s forte. The melody is simply heavenly, and the mix really shines with strings, horns, and glockenspiel. Hi Life would be right at home on a playlist with The Walker Brothers & Dusty Springfield.
First Shot is another straight-ahead rocker, a shot across the bow of Spoon’s Got Nuffin, and is also growing on me as I listen. Golden Age provides an unexpected detour into 80s synth-pop, one of the few eras of pop music that McLamb’s songwriting had thus far avoided. Turns out he’s pretty good at it, and it’s a nice mid-CD refresher.
Then we arrive at another true gem, For Izzy. It kicks in with a whistle (via Raleigh native and national whistling champion Tony Woodard), and evokes images of riding the open range, before stopping in at the saloon to cool off with jaunty piano and harmonies. Izzy is perhaps the most personal of the tunes on Ruby Red, and the one which most harkens back to old school Love Language. Faithbreaker keeps us in the rootsy vibe but from a different angle, with an alt-country intro and some twangy guitar.
On Our Heels is an even 80s-er, synthi-er, number than Age (New Order, Depeche Mode, even?), which merges into the band’s more typical harmonies and (on this record at least) guitar noise. Knots also conjures early Love Language, in the spare vocals, before opening up and moving into territory occupied by labelmates Arcade Fire. Flourishes of strings, horns, glock, more whistling, and a big beat fill in what starts as a very minimal number.
But on the closer, Pilot Light, the Love Language make full use of the players and instrumentation available. It is, quite simply, a work of art, opulent yet intimate. Not only is it a great song – structurally and melodically -- but it’s written to take advantage of every single note, string, key, whistle, and blare in it. And it does. Along with High Life, Pilot Light gives us two songs here that could be bonafide standards in a few decades.
While Ruby Red might not focus on McLamb’s voice, and some of the cozier elements of earlier records are kind of lost in the flood of instrumentation and overdub, I think that was the point. He’s already played the minimalist. The voice is not supposed to be the focus of this album (and truth-be-told, it probably was in the first album only out of sheer necessity). The focus here is song structure, and on composition. McLamb is a composer of pop music, and you could tell with Libraries that he was itching to get his hands on all the tools to really flesh out his compositions.
In Pilot Light, McLamb sings of an artist struggling with self-doubt, one who “heard the famous melody” that became their “favorite lie”. But towards the end, he tells us he’s “finally seeing the light” and “all the notes collide and ring on the last line, just in time to see it all end.” Music and lyrics are always open to interpretation, but I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess he’s paying homage to a fallen idol (say, Etta James, who passed while this album was being made). But in the process, I think McLamb is coming to terms with his own musical place and abilities, and maybe exorcising some demons of his own. I’m not sure if he’s succeeded, but the Love Language is definitely growing and finding its place. And while the notes all do collide and ring, if Ruby Red is an indicator, this is a beginning, not an end.