The hard truth is, no matter how many albums we review each year, there are always countless releases that end up overlooked. That’s why, this month, we’re bringing back our
No Album Left Behind
series, in which the Paste Music team has the chance to circle back to their favorite underrated records of 2021 and sing their praises.
Le Ren—aka Lauren Spear—hit the ground running when the lead single off her debut record Leftovers, “Dyan,” caught the eyes of Wilco head honcho Jeff Tweedy in August. Before releasing Leftovers, Spear recorded standalone tracks for Sub Pop, as well as a duet cover of Peter, Paul and Mary’s jubilant hymnal “Early Morning Rain” with Big Thief’s Buck Meek. Though she’s an integral part of an eclectic clique of working Canadian musicians (like Orville Peck, Julie Doiron and Daniel Romano), she’s separated herself from her contemporaries by way of her gift for pairing resonant lyricism with immeasurable vocal warmth. Leftovers isn’t your father’s Greenwich Village folk record; it’s an assemblage of brilliant, familial storytelling and Western Hemisphere lullabies that transcend genre.
There’s a transformative fluidity sleeping in the heart of Leftovers’ tracklist. It’s baroque. It’s Americana. It’s country and Western. Heartbreak incantation “Who’s Going To Hold Me Next?” could soundtrack the last-call serenade of a honky-tonk bar; “Was I Not Enough?” barks at the doorstep of an imminent breakup. Spear channels Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins without co-opting their angelic falsettos. In turn, she forges her own sound by aptly balancing twangy, raw vocals among the quiet of a hypnotic guitar, piano and pedal steel. One of Spear’s great translations of the folk songbook comes when she unabashedly positions the camera on her own voice first and worries about the instrumental compositions second.
As a result, both the deep cuts on Leftovers and the singles are poetry in motion—and it’s one of the few true no-skips records of 2021. “Friends Are Miracles” is Spear at her most joyous, as she revels in the beauty of surviving (“We are miracles standing as tall / As we can and we’re making it through”). Yet the record’s economy leans on Spear’s most-personal lyricism. “Your Cup” is Le Ren at her best. It’s a tender, sensual trip, where she delivers two of the record’s most memorable lines: “And as often as I bring you to my skin / I wonder where I start and where you end” and “Well, I’ll tell you that I love you / With my lips pressed to your leg.”
Spear’s soprano vocals are captivating, especially on “I Already Love You,” where she explores the potential of motherhood—inspired by a stay with her own parents. The song ponders the first chapter of a newborn’s life and she illustrates a joy that stretches from the anxious eagerness of welcoming a living thing into a changing world (“Now I wait for the day, I can say / I already love you”) to the daydream of rushing to their bedside in a potential time of need (“Someday you’ll wake me in the nighttime / I’ll sleep softly to hear your call”). It’s a hypothetical landscape that spans years; for as long as popular music has existed, there have been triumphant and breathtaking songs about motherhood, as well as passionate, personal songs about the period in someone’s life long before childbirth—but rarely do songs interrogate the moments that come between, where dreams of starting a family and the exploration of raising kin and keeping them safe intersect.
But Leftovers’ mission statement is clearest during the ode of matriarchal gratitude, “Dyan,” as Spear sings, “When cherries grew / She knew the sweetest fruit / And the ones to toss away / She knows the way that it goes.” So much of the record is about intimacy and separation that we forget its truest direction points towards generosity taking shape through reflection. Closing track “May Hard Times Pass Us By” is a perfect warble of hope, an earnest declaration of desire to come out OK. What makes Leftovers such a necessary record for everyone’s year-end rotation is that, though there is heartache and loss present, Spear doesn’t dwell on it too long—instead retreating to the comfort of those who remained after the smoke cleared. “Now I know your love / And I’m where I’m supposed to be,” Spear sings early on.
Leftovers is very much a product of the world it was recorded in—but instead of turning it into a document of stationary hopelessness, Spear takes hold of her environment and reckons with how it can change the direction of the road she will soon go down. She offers a vulnerable meditation to soundtrack the ways in which our hearts reach outwards towards the loved ones we miss and the loved ones we haven’t met. And if the music world gifts us all with more pro-mom records in 2022, may we return to them just as soon.
Matt Mitchell is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. His writing can be found now, or soon, in Pitchfork, Bandcamp, Paste, LitHub and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @matt_mitchell48.