The highways that snake inward from the East Coast to the Midwest and beyond are littered with potentially lethal distractions. Big rigs, suicidal deer, and intimidating curves are fixtures on the roads that truss Virginia. Rural Ohio offers a straight course through its open sprawl, though the giant mile-marking billboards plastered with the Ten Commandments are enough to send you into the bumper of the station wagon that inexplicably slowed to a crawl in front of you. But when Aly Spaltro — a/k/a Lady Lamb — grabbed her Fender Jaguar, left Brooklyn, and set out on a solo leg of one of the national tours in support of 2013’s Ripely Pine, her remarkable full-length debut, the unfurling expanse of concrete between her and a Midwestern venue struck as benevolent, even inspiring. Spaltro sang to herself while flying solo, and she didn’t peel her eyes from the horizon in order to commit “Vena Cava” — what would become the first track on her sophomore effort, After — to memory. Hell, she didn’t take her hands off the wheel to hit the “record” button on her iPhone.
“I wasn’t even recording; I was just driving and singing a cappella over and over again until I remembered the lyrics,” she says. “Vena Cava” splinters from the prickly static of Spaltro’s previous output: The bulk of Ripely Pine makes for a lush listen, with Spaltro’s voice alternating between triumphant crow and furious, heartbroken roar over muted chords. For After, which she’ll christen with a hometown show at Rough Trade on the day of its release, Spaltro assembled a band that favors a heavy-handed (and -footed) percussive approach. This move in a harder direction encourages earplugs and a full-body tremor where the garage verve of “Vena Cava” feels right at home. The shift in style was a symptom of a self-imposed challenge that had her favoring hooks instead of endless, poetic lines, and sculpted the lyrics and dynamics of the record.
“I never work from a formula, ever,” Spaltro says of her songwriting. “But I did have a subconscious desire to see if I could be more concise and less meandering, though I do find value in working things out within a six-minute period. For [After], I wanted to get to the point faster and say what I wanted to say directly. The similarity between the two records — there’s still earnestness and sincerity, and I’m still being myself. I’m just being more abbreviated. I wanted to write a couple hooks! So I worked it out.”
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Though “Vena Cava” was written on the road, the bulk of After took shape in Spaltro’s bedroom in Park Slope, where she fully demoed each tune on the record, sketching out each string or snare-hit with her voice, her guitar, or both. (Despite her obvious skill at writing in transit, Spaltro is a self-proclaimed homebody.) While the production of Ripely Pine stretched across a ten-month period, Spaltro was able to craft After with co-producer Nadim Issa in a fifth of the time, internalizing this mission to concentrate her lyrics and melodic forays into tight, bright, and bold ruminations on life, love, death, and every other earthly pursuit in between.
“I enjoy writing songs that are lyrically devastating and masked with a pop filter,” she says, referring to this delicate dance between intense subject matter and approachable musicality. The sentimental strumming introduced on Ripely Pine (namely on “Crane Your Neck” and “Florence Berlin”) hasn’t been shelved on After, but reincarnated. The somber “Sunday Shoes” is halting in its morbid beauty and eulogizing language, and “Billions of Eyes” is a downright chipper ode to anxiety and panic. After‘s strongest moments reside in the boisterous, discordant arcs of “Vena Cava,” “Billions of Eyes,” “Spat Out Spit,” and “Arkansas Daughter,” which perpetuate this strident, emotional waltz. And while After borrows directly from her own life and many of its lyrics contain hidden messages for family members, friends, or lovers, no song on the record can be credited to a single muse. Spaltro refers to her songs as collages; one verse can be about numerous people, places, or things that have left their mark on her.
“It’s a contradiction, in that I find this record is very direct in its execution and voice,” she says. “ ’Arkansas’ was inspired by real events in my life, but in order for me to cope with some of these things I think about, I make these true stories fantastical so that I can have a different perspective on them and remain close to them in a way that isn’t hurtful or anything, in a way where I can perform them every night.”
After the Brooklyn release show, Spaltro will pack up the Jag and the van and head out on the road again, with additional “hometown” gigs in Portland, Maine, where she’s from, and Boston, where she cut her teeth in the city’s rock clubs. She’ll move on to a national tour after that, where she’ll populate her set with Ripely Pine and After picks in equal measure. Whether her next tune awaits her on I-95 or at a stoplight steps from the Atlantic remains to be seen, but the sounds of After are set to echo as her most indelible release yet — especially “Vena Cava,” catchy enough to remember without a voice memo.
Lady Lamb will debut the bulk of After live for the first time March 3 at Rough Trade NYC. The performance is sold out, but tickets are available on the secondary market.