Bobby Jo Valentine – Fox Eyes, Whale Heart
Few young songwriters impress like Bobby Jo Valentine. His third album Fox Eyes, Whale Heart refines and perfects the first stage of his songwriting development. The lyrical content has deepened in poetic ways and he continues to learn more and more about how to integrate his personal experiences into material with universal appeal. The album has twelve tracks with the common foundation of Valentine’s acoustic guitar, but he doesn’t constrain himself to a strict folk aesthetic. He busies himself threading a surprising variety of instrumental voices into his sonic tapestry and they seamlessly weave their way through his artistic vision. The songs offer hints of a rock and roll attitude that Valentine doesn’t fully exploit, but instead seeps out enough to sharpen the edges of some songs.
“Carry Me Away” might streak along powered by acoustic guitars, but there’s a rock and roll heart beating deep within this track. It’s the unbridled, life-affirming energy of Valentine’s vocal and the band’s performance that imbues it with this quality. The brass emerging later in the song underlines its energy with its melodic flair. Melody, naturally, is the basis of Valentine’s songwriting talent. The album’s second song “Bones” drives this point home and illustrates his penchant for song construction. You won’t find a clunky transition throughout the song and each passage interlocks organically rather than playing like a musical patchwork. The vitality and swing on “Haunted House” tempers its dark lyric, but Valentine’s singing helps lift it even further out of the murk. No matter how dire the lyric sounds, his pipes sound full of defiance and delight in his ability to express such painful self-judgment.
The middle of the album brings its undoubted pop peak. The title song and “Lion in Summer” are, like the remainder of the album, centered on Valentine’s acoustic guitar, but the infectious melodic content helps the songs cross genres. The former is more moderately paced than the latter, but Valentine gives a shimmering musical interpretation that makes full use of its vocal melody. The latter song has a much more uptempo approach, but he handles the romping energy with complete control and a bright spirit. “Ever Since” is a piece delving deep into his personal history, but the yearning for freedom filling this lyric is a perfect example of how Valentine has learned to mine memory and transmute it into something everyone can relate. “Ungrateful” has a similar line of attack. This is Valentine at his most unadorned, a brilliantly observed and compassionately rendered “taking stock of my life” track that finds Valentine cajoling himself to be thankful for his place in the world and the blessings that follow. The album’s finale, “Something You Happen To”, is laden with beautifully understated strings and a can’t miss melody. The song brings the album to a perfect, restrained close – it’s rather like a leaf slowly wafting to the earth below.
There’s incredible insight, entertaining flourishes, and a fun attitude driving this album, even in its darker moments. Valentine clearly delights in his role as a songwriter and he should. This is a young artist gifted with the ability to express important truths in a melodically pleasing form. In 2016, this is an increasingly rare commodity and we are lucky to have albums like this.
9 out of 10 stars.