Album Review of Valerie Orth: Rabbit Hole
Valerie Orth is one of our favorite music artists at the Blog. Longtime readers will already be familiar with Valerie’s talent from reading my review of her Fires and Overturned Cars anthology and my take on her subsequent Wake You EP.
Valerie Orth is a detail-oriented songwriter who pens memorable tunes. Her career has been a little genre-fluid, but I’d place her latest releases – the previous Wake You EP and the current Rabbit Hole LP – in the electronic pop category… with rock, R&B, and a plethora of other influences, in addition to life experience, serving as seasoning in her musical stew. On her website, Valerie describes herself as an “electro alt-pop singer, songwriter, producer, & feminist.” All clearly true. The press releases I’ve received for Rabbit Hole dub Valerie an “alt/cinematic dark pop songwriter,” and I suppose that fits her as well as any other description, especially in light of the music on her latest disc. The music on Rabbit Hole is memorable, complex, catchy, thoughtful, and often danceable.
Album-opener and the album’s first single, “Rabbit Hole” combines rhythm and electronic flurry-based hooks with static, spots of mostly-empty audio space, and a catchy chorus to grab the listener’s attention and hold it throughout. This is the song you’re most likely to be hearing in your head days and weeks later. Well, it’s the one I do, at least. (Now, what’s this about sex robots? Is that available from Hammacher Schlemmer or SkyMall?)
Rabbit Hole is a great album to listen to in its entirety from beginning to end. It flows well together, and there’s a surprise around each corner. “99 Cent Dreams” feels musically like a funhouse mirror-filled meandering through the protagonist’s thoughts, dreams, hopes, and fears.
The spoken track “El Censo” leads the listener thoughtfully with an open mind into the politically-charged, current events pop number “I Believe We Will Win,” a song whose musical jerks left and right draw attention to the lyrics, including the raw hopefulness of the title phrase. Though the video of “I Believe We Will Win” is a standalone video, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the song presented sequentially with “El Censo” as the lead-in during an awards performance. Yes, I know, Valerie won’t be performing this on a televised awards show, but if I were choreographing such a show, that’s how I’d sequence it.
“Fight For Love” slows things down a bit, moving the album from a societal level to something very personal. The slow-build opening creates powerful tension, drawing us to its sequential, emotional story. If I were to direct a video for this, I’d blend the song’s military lyrical imagery (“fire one more weapon, shoot a bullet through my heart”) with a very intimate portrayal of a couple battling to work things out.
“Done to Me” plunks along in a memorably catchy manner, using the space between the notes and the beats effectively to complement a vocal rhythm that stops, starts, and runs in a tense harmony with the beats, with occasional musical flourishes and a here-and-there dense static soundscape adding character.
“Gold to Dust” amps things up a bit, with a fun, uptempo chorus separating largely spoken-word verses. The back half of that catchy chorus – “maybe I could take a page from you; turn gold to dust the way you do; maybe then I’d be able to forget you, too” – tells you what this song’s about. And, yeah, you’ll be singing along within a couple listens.
“See Jane” is a short (0:53) between-song musically-backed spoken word bit featuring the words of Toni Morrison; it leads into “Limbo Love,” a beat-driven track using stutter-vocals, a vocal bridge that bounces back and forth in stereo, and catchy “everyone…” lyric sequences providing forward momentum and energy.
“Tourist in Nature” follows, a bit more of a standard-formatted song that would be one of the more radio-friendly songs on the album, one that would be just as engaging as a standalone number as within the context of Rabbit Hole. The beat churns along, ratcheting up the tension throughout this persistently-tempoed track. The song’s message? Yes, what you’d guess from its title. How did we get so separated from the outside, natural world?
The disc ends with Valerie’s original interpretation of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.” Valerie delivers a slow, deliberate version that creaks eerily and ominously, with a pulsing synth “heartbeat” thumping the song powerfully forward to its conclusion.
On her website, Valerie calls Rabbit Hole “the most experimental album I’ve ever written and produced,” and I’d posit that’s one of the things that makes Valerie such an elite artist. Bowie, Sting, Gaga. They take (or took) chances, try new things, experiment with sounds and styles. Those influences produce surprises, mostly (from an artistic perspective, at least) pleasant surprises. Musicians who are willing to push the envelope, trying new things, and grow present a life’s work that’s worth hearing beginning to end. Though she’s still quite young, with hopefully decades more of music-making in her future, I consider Valerie Orth to be one such artist, and I look forward to hearing what she creates next. I assume it won’t be what I expect, but I expect my life to be richer for having heard it. For now, I’m glad to have Rabbit Hole to tide me over until her next creation. I’d suggest you check it out yourself.