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Lady Lamb the Beekeeper - Ripely Pine

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Artist: Lady Lamb the Beekeeper

Album: Ripely Pine

Label: Ba Da Bing

Review date: Mar. 18, 2013

I’m not sure exactly when freak folk died, but it’s a pretty good sign it’s over when even Devendra Banhart sports a shave, a haircut, a fiancee and a surprisingly cohesive and unwacky new album. So let’s say that freak folk has passed over to that great genre bin in the sky, and let’s not expect a revival much before 2025. What do we do, then, with the spiky, adrenalized, banjo-yelp-and-stomp overload of Lady Lamb the Beekeeper?

We can’t just drop the freak part, even if the Boston Globe named the band — essentially one shout-singing dynamo named Aly Spaltro — the best folk act in 2011. After all, the designation “folk” implies a certain selfless conservatorship, an abnegation to old songs, old instruments and old ways of presenting oneself. Spaltro is in no way bound by these conventions, breaking mid-barnyard strum for an electric blare borrowed from Hendrix, attacking concepts like verse and chorus with such ferocity that she literally blows song structure apart. This is not folk, not even anti-folk, but rather a kind of acoustic prog crossed with cult-of-personality diva-pop. Never mind the banjos. There is nothing down-home (or Down East, given Spaltro’s origins) about this lady.

Spaltro’s wilder, more chaotic sound stems partly from the fact that she recorded Ripely Pine in a proper studio, and so had opportunities to add more instruments and overdubs onto idiosyncratic foundations. She’s been performing “Aubergine” for years, just her and a guitar, but for this record, there’s a full brass band, a drum set and various other accompaniments. Elsewhere the uptick in intensity comes from plain volume. “Bird Balloons” can be found in various unplugged guises on YouTube, but here it comes amplified and distorted into rock.

Ripely Pine is overloaded with sound, lurching with sudden dynamic shifts, swiveling from one melodic idea to another, trembling with strings, gleaming with brass, fractured into colored shards of bright feeling. It’s too much a lot of the time, a carnival-ish onslaught of unmediated sensations that pound in on you for five- and six-minute song lengths. It is also hard to parse the structure of these songs, which seem to be driven from punching aggression to lullaby-ish softness, largely by what Spaltro is feeling at the moment.

I’ve been struggling with why I’m not more taken with Ripely Pine, given my weakness for strong, eccentric female voices. I think it comes down to the idea of performance versus musicality. Some of these songs — “Red Balloons”, “Aubergine” and “Rooftop” — are bravura performances, brassy belting showstoppers that bull right over any objections you might have. But once you’ve been flattened by them, what do you remember? Not the lyrics. Not the hooks. Not the arrangements. Just the sense of tremendous force funneled through a remarkable young woman.

By Jennifer Kelly

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