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The Love Language - Baby Grand Music Album Reviews

After three albums packed with peach-sweet melodies, a move to the West Coast inspires one of indie rock’s most underrated songwriters to supercharge his sound and upgrade his showmanship.

It wasn’t obvious, before the release of Baby Grand, that the Love Language needed to find a new direction. Over the last nine years, Stuart McLamb and a rotating set of musicians brought his lovely, vulnerable songwriting to life with equal parts subtlety and sincerity. They could get loud (see: their charmingly noisy 2009 self-titled debut and “Calm Down” from 2013’s Ruby Red), but a certain lightning-bug placidity was their main mood, with lush horns and peach-sweet melodies that went down easy. Many indie bands past and present have spent entire careers refining elegant sounds like these, and if McLamb chose to do the same, it’d be hard to blame him—especially considering how consistently swell the results have been.

But McLamb packed up his Raleigh home while working on Baby Grand, the Love Language’s fourth full-length, ditching familiar Southern comforts for Los Angeles. (A press bio claims that work on the album began in “a cavernous Virginia hammock factory,” which adds a quirky wrinkle to this mythology.) Relocating to the West Coast to find oneself is a well-worn cliché by now, but the record’s supercharged sound suggests that the move had a profound effect on McLamb’s songwriting: From the glittery avalanche that opens the album, on “Frames,” it’s clear that he’s embraced a new level of showmanship.

The increase in energy isn’t always for the best: The charged-up burn of “New Amsterdam” recalls his former Merge labelmates Arcade Fire’s own brand of throbbing arena music, but its chugging chorus makes for the album’s weakest moment. For the most part, though, McLamb and the gang wear these changes well, zapping bolts of electricity into hidden corners of tunes in a way that livens up the band’s typically solid songwriting. “Castle in the Sky” opens with a gentle acoustic strum before bursting wide to reveal miles-long shoegaze textures and an impassioned drumbeat of the sort favored by classic-rock synthesists like the War on Drugs. “Juiceboxx” is all neon synths and pleasing falsetto vocal takes, melting into the kind of gooey instrumental breakdown fellow L.A. denizen Ariel Pink occasionally allows himself.

Even as these risky choices broaden his sonic palette, McLamb’s music retains the swaying, moonlit quality that has made him one of the most underrated indie songwriters of the past decade. At his best, gorgeousness spills from his every lyric; witness the lush balladry of “Let Your Hair Down” and the gently swaying “Independence Day,” which finds McLamb unspooling imagery about the titular holiday and sand-buried grand pianos before announcing, atop a pounding chorus, “I’d go with you to L.A. if you could just decide/Where you’re going, if you’re going that way.”

On the album’s highlight, closing track “Glassy,” McLamb is already there, and the move has given him a new sense of peace. Over swaths of horns and folksy guitar, he sings sweetly of day-tripping, before remarking, “And the City of Angels won’t save us/But maybe we’ll be famous before we die/If we’re still alive.” It’s a beautiful and nakedly sincere song, streaked with the woozy, lovestruck feeling of falling for a new city and embarking on a new phase in life. Baby Grand would be enough to make you jealous of McLamb’s contentment, if his generosity in bringing listeners along on this transformative trip didn’t elicit such gratitude. If it doesn’t send you down an Echo Park Zillow hole, the album at least makes a convincing argument that leaving your old life behind can lead you to a whole new form of bliss.

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