(Swansea cover courtesy Meagan Grandall)

Meagan Grandall, lead singer/songwriter/leader of PNW band Lemolo, has spent nearly a decade recording music that’s equal parts intimate and expansive. 

Her lyrics and bell-clear voice are as emotionally vulnerable and naked as the most introspective folk singer’s. But the sonic canvas on which she paints is ethereal pop, rife with texture and a sense of dreamy atmosphere that’s sometimes fraught with melancholy and ambiguity. 

Each Lemolo full length has been an exploration and a refinement of those elements. So it’s no surprise that Swansea, the band’s third and latest full-length, finds Grandall and her rotating roster of collaborators further refining that mix. What’s most satisfying is how perfectly it crystallizes every aspect of Grandall’s vision. I won’t mince words: Swansea is a remarkable record, and easily Lemolo’s best, biggest-sounding effort yet.

Bigness here doesn’t imply something massive and hollow. Swansea still retains the sense of nuance that’s always been part of Grandall’s creative DNA, but her songs are given truly epic, almost cinematic execution. Nathan Yaccino’s excellent production showcases shifts in dynamics, epic choruses, whisper-to-a-roar crescendoes, and fully fleshed-out instrumentation that would play as persuasively in an arena as they do alone on a set of headphones.  

Strains of darkness have always intertwined with the undeniable beauty of Lemolo’s output, and Swansea ventures into very dark territory indeed. There’s an immediacy to the sense of personal loss and isolation that Grandall is exploring here (she was navigating the passing of a close friend during the record’s evolution), and it can sometimes ache in its directness. The gorgeous, ethereal wash of keyboard textures at the top of Swansea’s opening cut, “South of Sound,” portends pillowy beauty, but in a couple of minutes’ time Grandall is crooning, “You’ll never understand me,” over Yaccino’s taut drumming and a descending, almost apocalyptic guitar hook.    

There’s also much beauty on display here. And Grandall’s eyes-wide-open gaze into the emotional abyss is as fixated on redemption from (and the release of) loss as it is on loss itself. The album’s luminous title track begins with an austere piano melody and some near-ABBA-level lush self-harmonizing from Grandall, and by the song’s epic close, she’s built the small corner of Wales that inspired the song into a metaphoric place of universal safety and healing.  

The consistency of Grandall’s songwriting is immeasurably augmented by Yaccino’s production, engineering, and instrumental assists (he and Grandall share guitar duties, and he also plays bass, keys, vibraphone, and cello on the album). Sonically, this is a record with touches that just blossom after each listen. 

It’s in the way that the chords and instrumentation of “High Tide” ascend and descend at strategic points, like the floor (or the emotional steadiness) beneath you rising and falling unexpectedly. And there’s similar magic in the way the spare, dusky intro of “Morning Mourning” begins in a dreamy echo, then shifts into outright storminess before lingering on Grandall’s spectral sighing, alone and ethereal, at the end.

Big Rock Record moment, as rendered by Meagan Grandall of Lemolo. (photo by Tony Kay)

At certain points, Swansea even feels like Lemolo’s official Big Rock Record, in a great way. “Heart to Hand” sports glistening keyboards and a Grandall vocal that suggest a more grounded variation on the Cocteau Twins’ wall of beautiful noise. And “Rogue Wave” wraps up with two closing minutes of majestic, anthemic instrumentation that sound like Grandall piloting Major Tom’s capsule into the stratosphere.

 Swansea somehow manages to have its cake and eat it too, spiritually. The cathartic build of the songs, the melodic hooks, and Grandall’s voice couldn’t be more ravishing, even as uncertainty and pain battle constantly with hope and optimism beneath the surface. “Someone told me not to stop ’til my legs give out,” she sings on “High Tide.” Maybe that’s Grandall reinforcing her persistence, optimism, and resiliency. Or maybe it’s just her negative inner voice trying to persuade her to run away from her personal demons instead of facing them. The beauty of Swansea, as a whole, is that it’s both of those things at once, delivered in captivating fashion.

(Lemolo celebrates the release of Swansea tomorrow night October 12, playing CATHEDRALS XXVII with Galen Disston of Pickwick, and Brenda Xu. Tickets available here.)