“We’re alive. Take it or leave it. Human conditioning our reality,” is how wails the catalyst unto a sonic story, the sort with whose recounting I am not as accustomed as with its consumption. Perhaps I am wrong, however, as the introduction to this story would suggest. It is merely the condition of my reality, that I would fancy myself no journalist, but rather a storyteller. There is another story compiled upon our peninsula of so numerous tales. Though many attribute to themselves the same, few are heard so resolutely, few are transposed by the ears of alien communities whose receptions might differ between each other. On the seventeenth of June, 2017, at Cooper’s Pub in Cannery Row, I witnessed as Valley Soul departed for just that purpose, to bring their story abroad of the Bay. Part of me feels that the tale is not mine to tell, but part of me feels an obligation to interpret its substance nonetheless, especially in the absence of its creators.
“Nature is calling you back. Not the kind of feelings you find underneath all your stacks,” Joe Scardina assures, and too assures repeatedly, that “Through all the anger, all the pain, there’s gain.” And again am I assured that lyrical cadence drives the flow of a song like the wind drives a sailboat. In the fourth track of the album, titled Work, Valley Soul displays a deliberated rendering of their listeners. While most of the band’s lyrics are cleverly arranged, I make this track exemplary - even the collective whoop that extinguishes the song, though not my favorite method, is as important to its composition as the synthetic harpsichord’s oriental scalings. A whimsical ambience is set by Adam’s keys, Richard Tripps lays down the grind beneath swelling and recessing guitar riffs, and amongst the grueling push for the song’s release, the singers, in unison, haunt us; “Work, work, work. All day long.” When they are finished reminding the audience of life’s incessant malice, the tone lightens, and we are advocated of nature’s grace. All this work was for no lucrativity, no career - simply survival, the preservation of life, the only grace by which all beings are permitted existence. If they had not erupted into this bridge via such recycled methods as the ‘eighth-note drum n’ strum,’ (1:55) the ballad would render my likes none but content.
“Don’t you care that I’m here? Don’t you know that I’m here?” I am asked, though I have asked the question innumerable times - occasionally unto others, even if they hear me not, but usually to myself. I am of the opinion that the acceptance and consequential embrace of grief is the most potent medicine. A display of one’s own despair can allow others the realization that their anguish is not unique. Unless your issue lies in attention-reception, this should not diminish one’s emotions, but adapt them, accommodate them, and make them more accommodating as well. Master of Loneliness finds the listener at the end of Work’s insistence of the necessity of the grind, and makes it all the more believable that such a journey is necessary, that the grief and longing is still to come, will always wait for you on the horizon, will always stare back at you in old photographs and Facebook posts. Appropriately, at this, the song never relieves itself of the band’s characteristic pulse - a go-to for the band that is ambiguous enough to be versatile - for what else persists within you after all the anger, all the pain? And when the pulse heavies, and time bends and slows around it, voices echo out like spirits, the guitars lament beside the keyboard, and the bards ask, all in longing, who cares? Who knows?
“I will come to you. In time. It will all come to you. In time.” When the piano keys roll in like a tranquilized swell upon the shore, the chorus wails out that someone, whosoever it may be, will come to them, in time, and when the insistence seems fleeting, so too flees the song by an easy beat and reserved piano. This reservation in Ingram’s talons and the butterfly pulse of Tripp’s drums magnetizes the song’s design. In terminology befitting of Monterey’s many foppish fellows, they sing, “I see you dancin with the pretty boys, oh-oh-oh, and it turns me on. See you talkin to the lonely boys, oh-oh-oh, and it gets me on.” The guitars calibrate to the keys, seep into their high-heeled groove. Then the song slows, just as one’s breath might pause, “You’re free, it’s the kinda thing you don’t repeat to anyone else. Soft and sweet, the kinda thing you lonely people need, like anyone…” and we are told again, “It will all come to you in time.” This song, albeit its apparent thematic simplicity, speaks less to the extrovert who might actually relate to the seductive antics of dancing dames, and more to the introvert who might yearn to understand why it is that people seduce each other. It speaks to the illusion of love so many love songs impose, and with which so many aspiring lovers quarrel, until they’ve no capacity to love left over. Thus the band insists, that, “I don’t wanna be alone with you,” over surfy, fun-pop beats. Adam Ingram then wails away his sorrows with a most amusing tale, from the novelty victory for a rodentine plushie named Chuck, to the traverse down-coast in search of jade crystals, the character presented here seems some satire of local peninsular peoples. The needle is again moved before the track is over, while the bandmates chant over a low-fi recording of snare and bass, “Lonely, lonely, you’re the only one that’s singing cause you’re lonely, lonely…”
“I will just trickle, I will trickle all over your walls.” Such is the sensation at the climax of this story, the lurid vision that remained always at the terminal, with increasing resolution - at least, that is what it seems, and thus would the song have had a more fitting place nearer to the album’s end. This song is of Kristen Gradwohl’s conception, and it seems her most prominent brainchild. In the moment of the song, however, there is a dusky ascent away from the other tracks, as though not into a heavenly realm, but a sidereal one, where all therein is but another beacon of brilliance from Earth. Firefly is a ubiquitous ballad of introspection. “When I was a child,” Kristen opens in a voice shrill and innocent, “I was a firefly, lighting up the way, until the day I die.” A suspenseful pause, as Valley Soul so adores utilizing, and the song picks up its feet, initiates its long and despairing attempt to leave the ground. “Grandfather always told me I was his brightest star. Now I am growing older… but where are my wings to fly?” Already the lament is clear. The metamorphosis we all must undergo, regardless of its incarnation, to liberate ourselves of the untruths of our innocence, to interpret the wisdoms we gather in childhood when the successive years seem to only dampen the light. So few are equipped to accommodate even the stark, universal motifs that Kristen translates of her own personal tribulations, which is why so many ought to understand the song’s discipline. I will not describe too heavily the structure of this one. You are better off listening to it for your first time if you have not yet heard it. I certainly recall my first time hearing Kristen shatter flames with her singing in Firefly. Cohesively, this track is the story of shadow’s encroachment, the story of how we are born into a very apparent world, a world wherein we think we know so much because, in our childhood, it is just small enough to contain us. This is the story of how the world expands around you, while the light you emit with which to see it diminishes, and it is the story of how one’s self, and no one else, must become their very own firefly.
“I’m one step further inside your head,” is rather appropriate a thing to hear while coming down from track five, but otherwise, the intro to track six, By Your Side, is almost instantly slack, like a fisherman whose excitement in the wake of a few successful casts makes a struggle of measuring his line’s tautness. That does not last long. After the intro sits us through a dancy chord progression and carves its groove in whatever fissure it finds, I found myself thinking, My, it’s another Valley Soul song, as though I expected more variation. Varied I’m sure it sounded to the band, to some adequate degree, for it is the sounds of their own myriad consciences. However, I found myself sinking into dissatisfaction, believing, after Firefly flew me to a domain deep behind cognitive frontiers, that the rest of the album might live up to the holy trinity of tracks preceding this song. However, when Adam and Kristen begun their serenade, when the harmony effused from the purple lights and the trembling fog, I was only reminded that I dig Valley Soul’s sound, and that this song is, if anything, a wonderful example of it. In this case, I forgave the lack of stylistic deviation that I pretentiously demand of my peers, simply because this fucking gypsy disco makes gyrate my shoulders and writhe my neck with an ecstasy unfounded on previous musical preferences.
Sympathy is a miser bastard, though, despite the pricelessness of compassion. It can consume opinions in its genteel maw, for so comfortable they sit upon its lips, and thus it steals away the arrogance and apathy that make people critics. People tell me that I am compassionate more often than they tell me how much of an asshole I am, but parts of me refuse to believe, so should anyone be discontented with my abrasion, let them be satisfied that such is simply the way I am. Now, onto the hard portion: telling artists how to art. I never liked creative writing classes (though I took two), cause I didn’t want to be told how to art, but here I am, about to tell Valley Soul that they did not cater properly to my specific and completely unwarranted tastes. And I will refrain from suggesting more mandolin, or more psychedelics, or more polskas, or more angst. With that out of the way, Awaken was perhaps too underwhelming, too ordinary of their style, or too… too… jovial? Fuck. I just did it, didn’t I? Well it’s true, to me, anyway, that on an album where so much melancholy is communicated through so much elation, an acute manner of concluding the sonic holiday would have been through a more contented subject sung upon a melancholy tone. Soul’s music is highly constructive, a talent that is so difficult to forge as any weapon - it is the heat of the anvil singing, while most succeed only to discuss the sound the sword makes when they shatter it. In lieu of this leeway, the band has accomplished more than most with the efficacy of their message. For my personal flavors, however, such construction requires temperament. I do not take any of Valley Soul’s members for alcoholics, but rather, I appreciated the dampening of their typical stylizations by Kristen Gradwohl’s unique brand of lamentation, and by Pretty Boy’s four-minute outro sequence, and yearned for more of these deviations. I was not rewarded.
Then there are two songs about which I am very tepid, titled Opening the Door, which is the second track on the album, and Friends, which is the eighth track. Both songs are powerful in their own respects. On track two, Tommy Howbert wails as though heard calling desperately through the door just slightly ajar. His emotive facility is wielded as though it were another instrument, an extension of himself harnessed and holstered but still a wild sort of beast, yearning at open vistas and eager to take risks. I like Tommy’s risks, and honestly, it was what salvaged Opening the Door from merely an indistinguishable Valley Soul song, to a piece that I recall fondly. It was the song’s remainder that, although well composed and well performed, was too safe. As technically the first single of the album (meaning it saw a Soundcloud release before the rest) and a long-time staple of their shows, Friends is far from forgettable, but it is just as far from fresh. This opinion, of course, is marred by the fact that I have seen Valley Soul perform enough times that, should I recall the number, I would have to start counting on my fingers (alas my fingers remain on the keys). It seems to me that it was created in the genesis of the album out of their EP, and was likely among the first to achieve completion. The song feels like less of a tale than many of their others, and is more of an anthem to each other - a beautiful thing, that, and it is thus pieced together with a clean and concise deliberation, as though each member wrote their portion of the song in dedication to the others. Even if not for my preference of a more begrieved tune to balance the album’s conclusion, of the songs present already, this one would have made an excellent outro. It feels somewhat like the proper conclusion to the journey that is so spiritually communed with us. The album is intimate, as should most albums be, and maintains its sense of earthiness, of solidarity, which grounds it even amidst such heady notions as those to which we are enlightened in Human Condition and Firefly. Even for a mild shortcoming in diversity, Talking Pictures is well and piteously ordained as the debut of this band, and I could think of none better. Their future is still, as we speak, conditioning to itself, to the peculiar folks they will encounter and with whom they shall also commune. Their lights are growing brighter, even as their world grows, and even as the growing world dims. There must be some reason folks like Kevin Call seem to suppress their worry, or some reason why folks like Tommy Howbert seem to worry so much. They have much of whose protection they are keen, foremost among these possessions being the very subject of that aptly-titled track, Friends.
Thank you again for reading my first attempt at an album review - it'll probably go down the memory-shitter and won't be as fondly remembered as the first part, or as this album, but I tried, dammit. If you dig Valley Soul and want to keep an eye on them or keep track of their tour dates/locations, like them on Facebook, subscribe to them on Soundcloud, or follow them on Instagram. To buy their album, check out their Bandcamp. To pay your homage to the creator of this blog, check out KAE9mm on Facebook and hear his savagery on Soundcloud.
If you want to get in touch with me, the author, shoot an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll get back to you promptly.