Stuart McLamb’s fantastic 2010 sophomore effort, Libraries, put some sonic meat onto the lo-fi bones of his DIY project The Love Language. Bringing a couple members of his road band into the studio and slathering on a good deal of production polish, he built his charming pop songs into a vibrant, freewheeling carnival of lush orchestration, dense noise, full-throated sing-along chants, and, above all, vibrantly snappy melodies—supplying exactly the right amount of energy and experimentation his lovesick ditties needed. On follow-up Ruby Red, McLamb continues to push his sound into more expansive territory, but has outgrown some of the jangly looseness that made his music so fun to listen to.
At his best, McLamb has a blithe execution that keeps the emotional turmoil light and full of momentum even in his most intimate songs. But that personal touch is largely missing from Ruby Red, an album stocked with more than 20 different band members from across the country; like a complex machine, the record has an impressive number of moving parts, but it lacks soul. This crowd-constructed approach is the album’s stated intent (named for a cooperative creative space in North Carolina, Ruby Red is billed as “an extroverted community art project”) but, in leading the charge through a series of booming indie-pop epics, McLamb and his unrefined quirkiness seem to get lost in the action.
A diverse set of ambitious rock compositions, Ruby Red liberally accesses its loaded instrumental arsenal and pays meticulous attention to structure, thereby weighing down and reining in McLamb’s normally breezy melodies. “Calm Down” kicks things off to the familiar drive of muddled guitar, pounding pianos, and bouncing bass before devolving into a distorted whirlwind of glockenspiel and keyboards. It is a calculated clamor, delivered, like much of the album, with a measured gusto that’s superficially lively yet noticeably restrained. From there, the band barrels across cacophonous guitar crunchers—none more grinding than “First Shot”—while occasionally pausing for quietly slick synth ballads such as “Golden Age.” It’s only by the affectingly climactic closer, “Pilot Light,” that McLamb finds the hugely dramatic anthem he’s looking for. Propelled by a brassy accompaniment and thundering percussion, the finale rediscovers his knack for beautiful and bittersweet songs about breakups. That’s not to say McLamb is forever doomed to write about heartache, but Ruby Red could use a little more heart.