(Caroline / Capitol / Arts & Crafts)
US: 26 Aug 2014
UK: 25 Aug 2014
The boy-girl duo of In the Valley Below comes from divergent backgrounds. Jeffrey Jacob comes from Memphis, and has a fondness for Link Wray and Phil Collins. Angela Gail was raised in Muskegon, Michigan, but found her songwriting voice while on a boat in the West Indies. They met in Los Angeles, and, bam!, they became this tech noir synth duo. (What’s more, as an interesting side note, they brew their own beer in their home of Echo Park, California, and that may be soon available for public consumption.) If you want to make comparisons to Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac, go right ahead, because In the Valley Below has that male-female interplay that makes their brand of dark pop so affecting. I don’t know if the duo is a couple, but they certain mine a partnerhood vein: on “Hymnal”, they sing together that “I wish I met you sooner / I could have loved you longer,” which as a 38-year-old single guy, I can certainly relate to, as, should I be lucky enough to find “the one”, half of my life is already spent. No 70th wedding anniversaries for me. Anyhow, getting back to the music at hand, In the Valley Below definitely recalls the synth pop of the ‘80s on their debut full-length album, The Belt, though without the sheer brightness or glossiness of that decade. There’s a permeating feeling of something more menacing, sometime more mature, something bleaker (and yet is slightly uplifting) than much of the music of that time frame. And that makes them interesting.
Aside from the obvious Fleetwood Mac comparison, the band musically sounds a lot like Depeche Mode at times. In fact, opening cut “Peaches” lifts a keyboard tone and riff from “Strangelove”, which, depending on your point of view, is either a smart harkening back to the past, or will strike you as outright plagiarism. And “Stand Up” will answer everyone’s burning question: What would have Abba sounded like if that group had hooked up with Dave Gahan and company? And if that wasn’t Abba-esque enough for you, follow-up track “Dove Season” is almost exactly like an Abba track for the 2010s. You may be forgiven for thinking that these guys were from Sweden, or, at the very least, somewhere in Europe. What’s striking, too, is that this was all written, produced, engineered, and recorded in a home studio, and there’s an expansive, almost cinematic quality, to these songs, which would belie their origins. However, while The Belt does dip into the past in startling quality, it’s clear that both Jacob and Gail have a hookiness when it comes to their songs. This is a record that might leave you a bit cold upon first listen, but coming back to it repeatedly allows these 11 songs to grow on your consciousness.
The most striking and amazing quality about In the Valley Below is their singing. Sometimes the duo shares harmony, and sometimes they trade off lines to astonishing effect. This is the line that runs throughout the disc, and it becomes clear that not only does this outfit have a passion for making music, but they also can carefully construct a call-and-response aesthetic that is quite pleasing. While there are some moments of cheesiness – the faux saxophone on “Palm Tree Fire”, the guitar solo that seems out of place towards the end of “Hymnal” – there’s a heartbeat underneath all of the synthetic gossamer. There’s honesty in a backhanded ironic way: “King Tide” has the lyric, “Everything comes with a price / Isn’t that nice?” and you can practically hear the sarcasm dripping off their voices, as though the duo realizes that all relationships carry a heavy weight and require work. There’s also a slurriness and gauze over some of these songs: “Last Soul” sounds as though Jacob is singing “lasso”, so there’s certainly a drunken, singing this as the bars are about to close quality to the material that, again, on your point of view, is either sensational or an indication of sloppiness that doesn’t work in this genre of music.
However, while The Belt may leave some sitting on a barrier, there’s enough meatiness to propel the group, even if they do stumble a bit here and there. “Peaches”, in particular, has a sing-a-long quality to it, even if the song title has already been used by the Presidents of the United States of America. There is familiarity to be had, of course, and that does provide a road map into the dark psyche that In the Valley Below is interested in exploring. While, yes, the group could be a tad more original, there are hints and glimmers of something more that might come down the pipe, and even though the record is a tad on the dark side, there’s also a bountiful sense of optimism, particularly on “Neverminders”. It’s telling that this outfit is based on the West Coast, as there’s certainly a sense of the glassy nightlife of Los Angeles that these songs convey effectively.
In the Valley Below run rings around other bands emulating ‘80s synth pop sounds in that they’re not necessarily trying to relive or revive an era. There are winks and nods, some subtle and some not so subtle, but you never feel as though In the Valley Below are out to simply recreate or fabricate something that has long gone. There’s a percolating sense of the original, and it’s nice to hear a band finally using the past as a springboard instead of a crutch. The Belt is not perfect, and it very well might leave some listeners indifferent due to the thematic undercurrent of dark wave. However, there’s enough on the plate they offer here that’s intriguing, and enough curveballs and corners to make The Belt something to wear that’s quite fashionable and unique. Belts can hurt you if used as a weapon, but they can also hold your pants up, and In the Valley Below do a deft job of exploring both polarities with their music.