In 2014, Luluc struck a perfect balance on its second album Passerby, playing indie-folk music that was quiet but melodious, gentle but sturdy, and sparsely arranged but occasionally touched with a well-placed horn part or other accoutrement.
Put another way: When you play quiet folk music, the songs have to be well-written and beautifully performed, because the slippery slope into Snooze Creek is always close by. And Passerby is well-written and beautifully performed through and through. Rightfully so, it stands as Luluc’s breakthrough.
Now comes the difficult task of following up that breakthrough. Sculptor finds Luluc’s core duo, Zoë Randell and Steve Hassett, expanding their sound by shading in the open spaces that lifted Passerby. As a result, Sculptor is full of pretty moments and commendable ideas, but it feels heavier and less effortless than its predecessor.
With the extra weight, some songs on Sculptor seem to churn around in circles. Opener “Spring,” for example, features lots of echo and prominent drums by Matthew Eccles, who plays in Weyes Blood, and its lyrics are adapted from a Japanese poem. But it moves in and moves out in three minutes without presenting a particularly memorable melody. It just hangs in the air, listlessly.
This is a recurring problem on Sculptor. With assists from The National’s Aaron Dessner and hornblower Dave Nelson (The National, Beirut), “Heist” builds and builds, slowly, for three minutes and then never really delivers a big moment. Dessner and Eccles also play on “Kids,” but they can’t stop the song from wandering, and a wandering song doesn’t seem like the right fit for the lyrics, which detail the frustrations of being a punk-rock kid in a small town. The song does end with a nice coda, though.
The second half of Sculptor is where the album finds its footing. “Cambridge” is a pretty and simple song that puts the focus on Randell’s lovely voice. “One way or another we get caught between this or that extreme,” she sings knowingly against a faint guitar strum. “Any other way can be hard to see.”
“Me & Jasper” is a lilting song of defiance with what must be the quietest J. Mascis guitar solo of all time. (Which is not to say it’s ineffective — it fits the song nicely.) Hassett’s nimble acoustic plucking on “Moon Girl” is gorgeous and transportive — perfect for the tune’s dreamlike feel. And “Genius” gets a touch of texture and tension courtesy drummer Jim White of Dirty Three. “Shut out the crowd,” Randell sings, echoing the album’s recurring theme of taking charge of your own journey. “Who needs them anyhow?”
Randell and Hassett are a formidable musical team, certainly, with both skill and vision to spare. They proved that on Passerby. Sculptor, on the other hand, seems like it’s searching for the right path forward, with both glimmers of hope and rough patches. It’s proof that the journey isn’t always easy, even for the well-equipped among us.