Stuart McLamb's songwriting career didn't start with a desire to emulate his favorite rock heroes. It started with a clumsy effort to dazzle a chick.
"Honestly, when I first started writing songs, I was trying to impress this girl who liked '60s bands," he says. "I think I subconsciously went in that direction and wrote songs I thought she'd dig."
Singing with the gruff sweetness of a sleepy-eyed bohemian, the Love Language frontman currently has a good thing going. In their hometown of Raleigh, N.C., the band is regarded as one of the bright spots on the contemporary underground-pop horizon.
McLamb and his bandmates — guitarist BJ Burton, keyboardist Missy Thangs, drummer Jordan McLamb, and bassist Nick Sandborn (filling in for Justin Rodermond) — have garnered heaps of critical raise for their gift of melody and quirky instrumentation.
According to McLamb, the lineup is more or less a rotation of musicians. "We kind of have a revolving door for bass players, you might say," he says. "Nobody's ever out of the lineup or anything."
McLamb is a North Carolina native who grew up in the small town of Cary, just a few miles west of Raleigh. He started playing guitar in middle school with some buddies, jamming mostly on reworkings of Skynyrd classics and goofy riff-rock tunes.
He got more serious about his technique and songwriting while in college. He put the initial version of Love Language together a few years back, mainly as a gang of like-minded supporters who could add bits and pieces to his own four-track recordings and songs.
After touring with fellow Tarheels and Merge recordings artists the Rosebuds, Stuart worked with Burton in the studio on his Merge debut.
"The more prepared an artist is, the easier it is to work with a producer," McLamb says. "BJ heard my demos and saw that he could add to them. We talked a lot about the songs before we went in, and the process was pretty fast."
Released last summer, the resulting 10-song album Libraries made a huge splash as a rugged, tuneful, moody, and quavering collection of guitar-driven tunes. While the Love Languages's self-titled debut came together in an informal, ramshackle manner, the sessions for Libraries were far more focused and collaborative.
"It was pretty straightforward in the studio this time with BJ working with me," McLamb says of his guitarist. "If you listen to the first album, it's more like demos, although I put a lot of time into doing the arrangements and mixes ... it's not just me with an acoustic guitar or anything. There's actually a demo version of Libraries recorded on a cheap digital eight-track machine that sounds just like the first album. We basically just retracked them and brought those to life with a little more engineering. There was some magic and new arrangements with the session.
"I've always loved reverb, the blending of tones and a big sound with a lot of atmosphere," he adds. "We tried to get as much natural, roomy reverb as we could. I'm a reverb junkie, man."
There's a natural clanginess to the songs on Libraries — a sonic nod to the noisy nature of vintage garage rock bands and early British Invasion records. The reverb is pervasive but not too thick.
The lo-fi element of Libraries also resembles the inexpensive recording sessions released by the more acclaimed U.S. indie rock groups of the 1980s and '90s — from early Camper Van Beethoven and R.E.M. to Guided by Voices and the more rock-oriented acts of the Elephant 6 collective.
The most popular tune on the new disc might be "Heart to Tell," a sophisticated melodic pop anthem propelled by a zingy acoustic guitar, booming drums, and handclaps. The romantic, happy-faced vibe resembles the gleaming late-'60s hits of the Turtles, the Beach Boys, and the Kinks.
"I never decided I wanted to start a '60s revivalist group or anything. I like all sorts of styles, but that became a starting point and set up a package for what this band became. That's what it is, but by no means will it stay just like this."
The folks at the Merge label dig the noisy aesthetic of the new album, but they have even more confidence in McLamb's songwriting and singing. They credit McLamb for going from a guy who can write a good album to a true bandleader.
With a Phil Spector-esque wall-of-sound production quality, Libraries has become an underground hit with new fans and critics chiming in along the way.
Some of the more upbeat tunes, like "Heart to Tell," bounce with cheerful innocence. Slower, sparser pieces, like the waltzy "This Blood is Our Own" and the melancholic "Blue Angel," sound like Band of Horses doing slow-dance numbers or Roy Orbison doing covers at the prom. None of it has the polish or sheen of commercial rock radio.
'To me, lo-fi is almost an anti-aesthetic where you're more interested in capturing the energy than spending your own energy on figuring out tones," McLamb says. "It's more about, 'Let's capture the moment.'"
If McLamb's earliest musical efforts failed to woo that old crush, the energy and passion going on with his music these days is more than enough to impress her now.