Roving through emotional landscapes both barren and ripe, Lady Lamb is a tenacious, powerful force of her own. Lady Lamb is the undertaking of 27-year-old Aly Spaltro, who began writing songs in a video rental store in Maine in 2007. Her late 2016 release “Tender Warriors Club” bears more intimate fruit than any of her previous work. At only eight tracks long, Lady Lamb opens with the words “I will protect your solitude,” a deliberate capitalization on the solitude that spatially, sonically and emotionally centers the album.
The first track, “Heaven Bent,” is neck-deep in someone else. This song is a bitter shrub of winter: Spaltro, in a rattlesnake-sharp, stark slide of a voice, is “trying to be good” but does not get far before she has to question her stability: “Will I spill all over everyone when you’re gone?” The track operates on the tension of a disorienting yet simple guitar reverb. Through layering, Spaltro plays with the plasticity and razor-edge possibility of her voice. The space in this track is vacuum-packed around lines such as “I am baptized beneath the lights all alone.” This experience of solitude, beneath the stage lights or sunlight, cannot be divorced from the spiritual. As in Spaltro’s previous works, “Tender Warriors Club” serves as the grounds on which God, solitude and the self meet.
Lady Lamb moves into “Atalaia,” a grave, short, barring piece that skews the intimacy “Heaven Bent” bares. The very first line, “Leah, I got your letter,” alerts the audience that this is a private matter. We are nowhere in this except outside. Imbued with emotional lethargy, the insectile, almost industrial guitar buzzes into a silence that hangs. This short, ascetic piece rolls to the question, “are we 27?” and does not attempt to answer itself.
Without a big brassy band as the engine of the album, like in the 2013 album “Ripely Pine,” Spaltro relies on the intimacy her lone voice creates. In “Salt,” stripped of instrumental backing, her voice pierces with a stark clarity. Spaltro, in lyrics that can only be described as poetry, attempts to lay bare the way mortality molds the emotional topography of the album. “Am I already mourning you?” is a devastating outcome of its influence, as is her response:
“I am yours, I am yours
You are my own
One kiss sucks the mud clear from my soul
The neon lights that fill your eye
Above Coney Island I could die tonight if I’m not
Already dead, already mourning.”
These tracks take the world onto their heart, a heavy but voluntary burden. It becomes clear that Spaltro is offered no rest and will offer no rest with these pieces. This album is a series of resistances and simultaneous surrenders. In “See You,” the album’s powerhouse track, resistance to the end of love occurs just as surrender to that same love blooms. Here, one cannot even rest in love. This track, previously released as a single, is clean and vulnerable in a way that parallels her other work, but in contrast to her sonically wandering six-minute wonders, “See You,” at only two minutes and 43 seconds, is a direct hit. Where monoliths like “Bird Balloons” build to the moment the heart falls, “See You” begins there with the achingly eager guitar and the immediate questioning:
“Have we fucked ourselves over?
Making our worlds so close
Your skin to my bone
Have I fucked myself over?
Making my chaos calm
Making our world so right”
Here, Lady Lamb employs many of the typical indie-folk trappings (the sprightly guitar, the echoing background vocals, the lack of modification), but comes nowhere close to sounding like the commodified folk that makes it onto radios. Again, the refrain and emotional crux of the song is a question: “If I see you when I look in my own eyes, how could I ever despise myself again?” She sings this question with no accompanying answer until her voice becomes hoarse.
“Tangles” makes clear that any contentedness Lady Lamb finds comes as a surrender. Whatever rest is found in this resigned, guitar-soft track comes after Lady Lamb relents that “I’m immune to no one.”
Whereas “See You” dealt with the anxiety of the possible reaches of a romantic relationship, “We Are Nobody Else” deals with the lack of possibility that occurs when there are no definite boundaries in the world. Spaltro switches to a banjo, scant and agile. Bothered by the sense that God, other people and love are not fully separated or fully incorporated into the self, Spaltro has to walk through her thoughts one by one:
“I nearly know not what to do
I am myself and you are you
I nearly know not what to do
When you see me seeing you”
The surrender in “We Are Nobody Else” thus is a surrender to this ambiguity. It leads to arguably Spaltro’s most powerful and epiphanic lyrics, a micro-manifesto:
“I will praise this life for all, my time’s too heavenly to not build
it a sanctuary to praise this life
The good glory of God, the great wrath of God
The gold heart of God, the true love of God
The blue blood of God, the warm breath of God.”
The last three lines overlay on themselves, become a chant, in an attempt at wholeness, at putting together. The effect is brilliantly spiritual. She asks, “Who gifted us this fate?” God is one answer. But it is no easy answer. Nature, God, the self – those that are not the self and love are as much the same thing as they are not the same thing. They cohabit each other. They make it difficult to repeat the old refrains of God without reworking them, as in “We Are Nobody Else.” They make it difficult to be restfully enveloped in love, as in “See You.”
This conversation continues to “Crater Lake,” the last track, whose encompassing question centers around the un-wholeness of the world the album has thus far laid bare, and what contentedness can be found within it. Un-wholeness, in this context, is the fact of separation between the self and all else in the world. The song itself is not barren like the front end of the album, but is rather imbued with ease. It attempts wholeness in a surrender to un-wholeness, wanting to “be one another’s present tense.” Spaltro sings in an un-fraught voice: “It runs through us, this movement, it fills us with sun.” She allows her voice to sing without the weight of words in a carefree melody. This movement runs through the album, crafting its resistances, its surrenders, the very push and pull that mark this album as one that primarily questions. It is only here, in a song that returns to the open, protected solitude of nature, Spaltro does not question. This song is a response; here, we are offered rest in an album that existentially bars itself from rest. Nature is the nexus where the self and the not-self and God meet, and nothing more has to be said than, “See that tree? I will climb it, I will pick you a plum.”
Contact Medina Husakovic at medinah ‘at’ stanford.edu.