In 2009, Stu McLamb found himself broke, alone, and puzzling over how to deliver on a contract with Durham’s Merge Records. “As of yesterday, I’ve overdrawn my bank account by $200, my girlfriend dumped me, and my car won’t start,” McLamb noted in a press release. “I think this Merge deal could be a real turning point.” The surprise success of his debut, intended mostly as private breakup catharsis, earned him the deal. He had mere months to produce a follow-up. What proceeded from McLamb—a North Carolina native now residing in Los Angeles—was 2010’s excellent Libraries, a collection of buoyant pop ballads slicked up by producer (and then Love Language-guitarist) BJ Burton. In 2013, the group released Ruby Red, a continuation of the sunny ’60s melodies and heartbreak anthems, named for the Raleigh artists’ collective where it was conceived.
After a five-year hiatus, McLamb has revived the outfit, recruiting new collaborators to contribute to the songs he wrote inside his brother’s hammock factory in Roanoke, Virginia. As much the driving creative force as a fervent collaborator, McLamb has finally found a comfortable position as the leader of a rotating cast of musicians so multiplicitous he now refers to it as an “extroverted community art project.” This year’s Baby Grand mixes folk with Joy Division-esque synthpop, balladry with his trademark jaunty pop. The title is a nod to ambitious songwriting born from a small budget and has a few breakup songs, sure. But packing new energy, the outstanding Baby Grand is more of a jubilant cheer than compulsory catharsis.