[May 29; Sleepy Cat Records]
Years in the making, Spectacle of Love is the fantastic solo debut from Mipso fiddler and vocalist Libby Rodenbough, who has helped guide the group’s string band sound into more-adventurous territory since she officially joined in 2014. Taking advantage of a larger palette of instrumentation and a wide range of collaborators, Rodenbough’s inventive and intimate songwriting is cast in new light over the album’s 13 tracks, which frequently forego Americana associations in favor of lush, evocative pop.
Spectacle immediately shakes off any lingering expectations of a folk album, progressive or otherwise, as the ornately ornamented opening track, “How Come You Call Me,” begins with a jaunty piano lead. It’s soon joined by Danny Abrams’s warm, woozy bass clarinet before Rodenbough ruminates on relationship roles. The chorus shines with gorgeous harmonies from Kate Rhudy and Bowerbirds’ Phil Moore, while the instrumental break showcases strings more fitting for a symphony hall than a fiddler’s convention.
Though well-versed in old-time traditions, the closest Rodenbough comes to them is on the stirring, unconventional fiddle duet “Under the U-Bahn”, featuring Tatiana Hargreaves on five-string violin, which launches directly into the dreamy “Country Jam,” with Rodenbough’s gentle strings and layered vocals complemented by ethereal Mellotron and an OP-1 synthesizer.
Riding a drum machine beat and a bubbling bassline, the brightly ornamented “Colors” is the album’s easiest earworm despite its explorations of identity and insecurity delivered with melancholic resignation. The lead single, “Tell Me How” takes a page from Tom Waits’s book of mournful late-night balladry, perfectly pairing Rodenbough’s forlorn lyrics with a sparse skeleton of piano and acoustic strums, gracefully accented with a simple rhythm and gentle harmonies. It’s one of several tracks that use a neat recording trick courtesy of a quirky local landmark—the massive metal geodesic Picnic Dome at Durham’s Museum of Life and Science, under which Rodenbough’s vocals, at Moore’s suggestion, were played on a Bluetooth speaker, with the echo recorded and used as reverb.
Though subtle, it’s one of many times throughout Spectacle when Rodenbough’s songs are elevated by the contributions from a wrecking crew of familiar locals. While providing the welcome opportunity to hear Rodenbough take lead and show off her songwriting chops over the course of a full LP, Spectacle is less a solo venture than Rodenbough surrounding herself with a different musical family, guiding them with spectacular results.
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