Thirsty Valley is a strong, assured debut that works best when the band plays around the outer edges of its country-rock sound.
Runner of the Woods’ official bio purports them to be a country band. But the opening paragraph of that bio is about how no country artist’s album collection is made up purely of country records. Then their debut album, Thirsty Valley, begins with a “We Will Rock You” beat and fuzzed-out electric guitar chords paired with acoustic strumming and low end piano chords. Lyrically, “Thirsty Valley” has a wistful tone, as singer-songwriter Nicolas Beaudoing sings about all the things he knows he’s missing out on outside the valley (“Silver cities on golden shores / Pretty girls I’ve never met before”) and the drawbacks of living in the valley (“I can breathe red dust”). But he concludes that “Everybody knows I’ll be the last to leave / From thirsty valley". In a scant two minutes and 16 seconds, the song nicely previews both the sound and lyrical tone of the album to come.
Second song “Good Things Will Come” is a better example of Runner of the Woods’ baseline style. It’s an easygoing, midtempo country-rock track with a chorus about leaving your dark feelings behind in hopes of better things ahead. “Down There” features a rumbling minor-key country groove in the verses while brightening in the chorus. It’s also a strong spotlight for pedal steel specialist Jonathan Gregg, who gets to take a solo in the middle of the song while also adding plenty of classic country atmosphere to the verses. “Back to the Good Life”, the album’s penultimate song, is another traditional country take, this time on the “I lost a good woman, but boy do I want her back” ballad. It works because Beaudoing knows how to massage his lyrics with enough sentiment to sound traditional but enough specific detail to make the song interesting.
The most intriguing stuff on Thirsty Valley are the songs that, like the title track, don’t quite fit neatly into the country box. “Even the Radio” is a power-pop rocker about loneliness and how nothing is soothing when all you can think about is the person that you miss. It’s an unusual high-speed centerpiece to a record where nothing else really gets faster than walking speed. The folky “Easy On Me” is evocative lyrically, as Beaudoing sings about how, in his dreams, the women and the bourbon all take it easy on him. “In my dreams / I very nearly changed her mind / She remembers all the better times / And if anybody asks / to hear the other side / She goes easy on me.” “Eastern Time” fits musically right into that standard country box, but the lyrics about the difficulties of air travel (with, of course, a side of woman troubles) across time zones, is unusual.
But the best song Runner of the Woods has here is one that perfectly hits the combination of bittersweet lyrics and music that much of the rest of the album circles close to. “Marching 100” reflects on nostalgic childhood and teenage memories and then tempers them with the refrain, “I must have forgotten / For very good reasons / The lay of the land from way back then". Beaudoing’s rich baritone singing voice delivers the earworm chorus and the detailed verses with a beautiful wistfulness that connects the warm sepia glow of nostalgia with the harsh reality that it wasn’t really all that great (“Homecoming dresses / Ugly ties / Home of the lonely Friday night”).
Thirsty Valley is a strong, assured debut without a single clunker on the album. At 10 tracks in just over 30 minutes, it seems like Beaudoing and company worked hard to pare the record down to just the best material they had. It makes for a breezy, enjoyable listen and it also works to make each of the songs more memorable. Some smart tracking on the part of the band keeps the most similar-sounding songs separated by the album’s more unique ones and ensures that the album flows really well as a cohesive unit.