"I just lay on my bed and stared at the ceiling for two hours," Stuart McLamb says of the day he cinched a deal with his home-state indie label, Merge Records. Considering the serendipitous beginnings of his band, it's easy to see why he had a lot to take in.
"The Love Language" was originally intended as a MySpace moniker, and little more, for McLamb to post some hastily recorded songs he wrote in the wake of a tumultuous breakup. Self-distributing the record on CD-Rs, McLamb's managed to get it as far as Portland, Ore., where Bladen County Records agreed to release the eponymous debut as-is. With its slipshod pop-symphonies and insatiable, Brian Wilson-worthy melodies delivered with a rich, comforting croon, the 29-minute record was an enthralling, irresistible listen that became a sleeper hit in the indie-blogosphere. It also landed McLamb on Merge's roster.
"I definitely felt like it would catch on. At its core, it's just pop music. At the same time, I'm still pinching myself at how successful it's gotten."
The Love Language's charm and emotion are undeniably palpable — putting you right in the thick of McLamb's journey back from the depths of inner turmoil — but for many, the low fidelity of the recording was all they could hear, leading them to Guided by Voices comparisons before they could reach the Orbison and Shangri-Las comparisons that were actually more appropriate. Or they just couldn't get past the tape hiss, peaked-out vocals and dragging drum-fills long enough to digest the melodic and harmonic cornucopia that lay between those seams. But that's not the case with the record's 2010 follow-up.
"I think it's funny to see how many people put that tag on Libraries. It's far from a lo-fi album," McLamb says.
For his Merge debut, Libraries, McLamb — with the help of engineer-turned-bandmate BJ Burton — found himself in a proper studio, taking long strides to greater realize and expand the harmonies in his head, shake the lo-fi tag and skirt the sophomore slump, while mostly maintaining the role of one-man session-band. The finished product boosts a fine and even more refined set of pure pop ditties and lovelorn lullabies, proving the brilliance behind his show-stopping debut was no fluke.
McLamb isn't shy when it comes to admitting the influences he borrows from. "I'll have a melody [and] an arrangement and then I'll try to imagine another band [playing it]," he says. When talking about specific songs on Libraries, he can pinpoint those influences. On the yearning ballad "This Blood Is Our Own," his muse is Etta James. He describes the sorrow-drowning "Summer Dust" as Everly Brothers meets Nico. And the melodrama that busts the record wide open and crescendos to the stratosphere on "Blue Angel" is his obvious homage to Roy Orbison. But McLamb also uses working titles like "Walkmen" and "Of Montreal," showing that his compositional sensibilities are equally rooted in the music of his contemporaries.
Now confident that he's settled on the right assemblage of musicians to bring his songs to life, McLamb says he and his troops are eager to take Libraries on the road and build on their group chemistry. "We've been exploring the songs a lot as a band. ... [The group has] been just kicking ass [and] blowing my mind. We are a band."
For the moment, McLamb plans on keeping it that way as he thinks about a third album and opening his writing to themes beyond transcending heartache.
"I wouldn't wanna put myself in a box. Who knows? The next album could be about, like, unicorns and witches."
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