Album Review: Valerie Orth – Rabbit Hole

Valerie Orth

photo by Liz Maney; photo courtesy of Valerie Orth

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.

Valerie Orth – Rabbit Hole

image courtesy of Valerie Orth

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.

Valerie Orth

photo by Liz Maney; photo courtesy of Valerie Orth

“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.

EP Review: Valerie Orth – Wake You

Valerie Orth

photo courtesy of Valerie Orth

EP Review of Valerie Orth: Wake You

If you’ve seen my review of Valerie Orth’s prior album or have seen the Geoff Wilbur’s Music Blog Facebook posts (like this one) urging you to attend some of her shows, you already know I think Valerie is a transcendent musical talent.

At her core, Valerie Orth is an electric guitar-wielding rock ‘n roll singer-songwriter. And as much as she dabbles in other musical genres and production techniques, blending their styles with her own, sometimes treading lightly and at other times diving all-in, her musical explorations are those of a versatile rock artist. As such, she’s doing what famous musicians like David Bowie, Prince, Sting, and others have done, taking her song-driven rock ‘n roll approach to other genres, even as she fully embraces those other styles, producing unique, original music worth exploring.

Valerie Orth - Wake You

image courtesy of Valerie Orth

For Wake You, Valerie experimented with new musical approaches, creating her own beats, using all the tools available to a devoted studio rat, delivering an avant-garde, beat-driven alt-pop/rock/more album that carries her stylistic stamp into a new musical landscape.

This album brings forth easy comparisons to Dayton, Ohio’s iconic rock legend Jayne Sachs. (Are people our age old enough to be iconic yet, Jayne? If so, I want to be called an iconic rock journalist.) Vocally, I never previously realized the obvious comparison, though now I can’t miss it. The tone, the edginess, and the ability to reach listeners emotionally with a lyric.

Valerie kicks off Wake You with “Call You My Own,” a song whose beat lurches smoothly forward, purposeful advancement carefully obscured by an almost falling-forward feel to its rhythm. Atop that beat, Valerie serves a light pop lyrical snack, sung sweetly both across and along the beat.

Valerie Orth

photo by Gina Garcia; photo courtesy of Valerie Orth

Next up, Valerie presents “Pixie,” one of my two favorites on the EP, though Wake You sports nary a weak spot. “Pixie” deploys a pattern of beat-to-melody, repeatedly building the song’s hook, connected by rhythmic bridges and cheerfully clever lyrics. This song’s simplicity is a ruse perpetrated by its effortless intricacy. It’s worth repeating; Valerie Orth is a master musician and performer.

“Love You Back” is also a beat-driven, light pop song, this one featuring a bridge that hints at hauntedness. And again with the clever lyrics, a key to my heart because I’m (usually, at least) a lyric guy. It’s followed by “Side By Side,” a song whose verses are a tad off-balance, lurching a bit like “Call You My Own” did, flowing into smoother choruses.

Valerie Orth

photo courtesy of Valerie Orth

Valerie closes Wake You with “Make Your Move,” my other favorite song in this all-too-brief collection, a track that showcases her sweet, crystal-clear, carefully controlled yet emotionally powerful voice. Even though it’s more of a synthesized pop song, it’s structured and feels like a rock song. Elements of ’80s mellow-ish synth-pop-rock, with that heavier sound (more of an album track or concert favorite from the time than a hit), are probably responsible for that rock atmosphere. Song-structure and lyrics are doubly important in such a song, and the brief transitions from verses to chorus seem a bit haunted. Altogether, they almost seem like the sort of song you’d hear from a top DJ. With Valerie, of course, being the exceptionally talented guest musician.

In the months before this release, I knew Valerie was experimenting with beat-making, aware she planned to release an album that took musical risks, but well aware from her previous work that she was musically capable. Still, when one of my favorite guitar-slingers made it clear guitars were not going to feature as prominently on her next release, I was a little trepidatious. But, yeah, Bowie, Prince, Sting… Valerie Orth is a musician. An arranger. A songwriter. And even beyond this EP, she seems to be exploring deeper down her current musicmaking path, with presumably more surprises in the offing, most recently an electronically experimental, uniqely original cover of Radiohead’s “Karma Police.” Worry not, though, that Valerie experiments and tests her limits musically. Worry only if she ever stops.


Album Review: Valerie Orth – Fires and Overturned Cars

Valerie Orth – Fires and Overturned Cars

Valerie Orth - Fires and Overturned Cars

photo courtesy of Valerie Orth

The Backstory

Valerie Orth started wowing music fans about a decade ago, receiving great acclaim in the Bay Area before moving from San Francisco to Brooklyn along with her longtime bassist Veronika Adams in 2013.

I’m not sure how I first discovered Valerie’s music, but for the last several months I’ve been enjoying her most recent album, Fires and Overturned Cars. Released two years ago (with individual, handmade covers, no less!), the album is a compilation of old favorites, new singles, and B-sides. Of course, I am just rediscovering the top independent musicians whose careers developed during my long hiatus from music journalism, so the songs are all new to me.

Album Review of Valerie Orth: Fires and Overturned Cars

Valerie Orth

photo courtesy of Valerie Orth

Valerie Orth is a singer-songwriter/rock guitarist. Fires and Overturned Cars showcases her broad range, often featuring elements of mid-tempo, sometimes psychedelic, indie rock with emotional, at-times soulful vocals, wrapped up in songs that, while they seem based on semi-catchy pop-rock songwriting instincts, emphatically refuse to sound formulaic.

Album-opener “Uh Oh” is the song that first attracted me. It’s memorable with a pulsing, not-quite-reggae rock rhythm. It’s a fitting introduction to the way Valerie’s vocals wander purposefully within the melody. If I were a coach on The Voice (or a color commentator on Monday Night Football), I’d say she moves around well in the pocket. Meanwhile, the rap breakdown in “Uh Oh” reminds me of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.” You know, just for kicks. As becomes evident throughout Fires and Overturned Cars, Valerie deftly incorporates various styles into her trademark sound.

“Life on the Moon” compares sonically to David Cook’s song of the same name, though it’s otherwise quite different. Valerie’s version has a bit more wall-of-sound psychedelic flavor and sweet, crisp vocals compared to David’s more straight-ahead rock riffs and gruffer vocals. Still interesting that two songs with the same title have similar enough powerful rises and falls to elicit a comparable emotional reaction, at least from me.

Valerie Orth

photo courtesy of Valerie Orth

“Still Something on the Line” has the insistent wail, let-up, and catchy melody that immediately reminds the listener of one of Liz Phair’s pop-rock radio-ready tunes. The result is an exceptionally memorable tune; in fact, this may be my favorite song in this collection.

Elsewhere on the album, Valerie blends and bends other styles – and the artists they remind me of – to her will. “Relinquish” mixes in some Stevie Nicks vocal flourishes with reggae-influenced choruses. “Devotion” utilizes Deuce Eclipse’s sway-worthy, well-placed, rhythmic rap segments well among reggae-influenced rhythms, while the line “you give to me/I give to you” reminds me, solely in the rhythm of the lyrics’ delivery, a bit of Jason Mraz’s line “you got the poison/I got the remedy.” “Keeps Coming Back,” meanwhile, kicks off with a dark heavy metal rhythm and maintains a heavy rock ballad darkness throughout, fitting to its thoughtful, self-assessing lyrics. And “Beyond This Song” is more of a straight-up, blues rock ballad in which Valerie’s vocals exhibit full blues-singer gravel.

Finally, some of the softer tracks have breakout potential, as ballads often do. “Blinding” is a bit of a psychedelic, sound-filled ballad, while “Maribel” is a sensitive guitar-picker that is reminiscent of how Dido’s vocal rhythm might sound in a Stevie Nicks ballad. And album-ender “I Forgive You” delivers sweet vocals in perhaps the most standard pop-rock ballad of the bunch, though Valerie’s vocal rhythm, moving around within the melody, brands it as a song that can uniquely only be hers.

Throughout Fires and Overturned Cars, the music, rhythm, vocals, and songwriting incorporate a variety of styles, all the while sounding clearly and cohesively like a Valerie Orth album. How cool is that?

Valerie Orth

photo courtesy of Valerie Orth

Looking Ahead

Valerie has taken the last couple of years retooling her sound a bit, and I look forward to hearing what she has in store for listeners in 2016.

At the moment, the only gig on her itinerary is June 15, 2016 – a tribute to Fiona Apple at Rockwood Music Hall in NYC.  Keep an eye on the tour page of her website for additional dates as they’re added.