Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Margo Cilker Valley Of Heart’s Delight

Fluff & Gravy/Loose Music
Fluff & Gravy/Loose Music

Before the computer scientists, marketing agencies, and self-described “disruptors” had their way with it, the Santa Clara Valley used to be known as the Valley Of Heart’s Delight. The Northern California region was so nicknamed because its abundance of orchards, plants, and flowering trees made it a leading exporter of canned fruit — and presumably because of the multi-sensory splendor that tends to accompany so much well-tended nature. In practice, the Valley Of Heart’s Delight is no less a branding exercise than Silicon Valley, but the former name spoke to far different qualities, ones that might never be coming back now that big tech has proven to be a more profitable harvest.

Margo Cilker grew up in the valley, but by the time she was born it was already morphing into the place we know today, ripe not for the tasting but for biting satire. Cilker moved away from home in her twenties; she bounced around to North Carolina and the Basque country and eventually settled in the rural Pacific Northwest with her husband, a ranch hand. Despite family roots in Santa Clara County that go back five generations, she now feels alienated from both the land and its inhabitants. That disconnect haunts Valley Of Heart’s Delight, the singer-songwriter’s second full-length LP.

Cilker’s 2021 debut Pohorylle was one of those records that never dredged up a torrential hype storm but became a treasured favorite for many. Produced by Sub Pop alum Sera Cahoone with a band including indie-folk veterans like the Decemberists’ Jenny Conlee-Drizos, Pohorylle presented Cilker as a chronicler of the world’s less explored corners, with a knack for smart, funny wordplay and a musical style that blurred the lines between country and folk-rock. In naming it one of the year’s best country albums, Marissa R. Moss raved, “There’s so much unexpected joy and wit,” while Stephen Deusner marveled at how much meaning Cilker wrung out of the expletive in opening line “That river in the winter, it could fuck me up.” Comparisons to greats like Emmylou Harris, John Prine, and Gillian Welch inevitably followed.

Valley Of Heart’s Delight runs it back with subtly spectacular results. Cahoone is once again on board as drummer and producer, and Cilker’s bandmates, mostly from Portland, have worked with artists like M. Ward/She & Him, Beirut, Band Of Horses, and Neko Case. They make a good team. As if mirroring the mix of thoughtful precision and cheeky playfulness Cilker brings to her lyrics, the band plays just loose and carefree enough that every meticulously plotted arrangement seems to breathe with spontaneity. Seemingly every instrument gets its moment to shine, be it the brass section that gives “Keep It On A Burner” the wobbly grace of New Orleans jazz, the eerie indie rock atmospherics at the end of “Mother Told Her Mother Told Me,” the harmonica solo that rips through “Santa Rosa,” or the way Conlee-Drizos’ saloon piano seems to converse with Paul Brainard’s pedal steel on the cross-country rambler “I Remember Carolina.”

At the center of it all is Cilker. She’s not a powerhouse singer whose voice will blow you away, but she commands attention through casual magnetism. She hits her notes, her line readings are peppered with conversational quirks, and she sounds great harmonizing with her sister Sarah. Still, you might not notice the texture of Cilker’s voice as much as what she’s saying with it. She’s a remarkable lyricist carving out her own space within a grand tradition, always subverting Americana tropes or finding ways to make them feel new. Every time I listen through Valley Of Heart’s Delight, another exceptional line jumps out at me.

The album sometimes feels like a journey through the wide open West and beyond, with Cilker relishing both the beauty of nature and the eclectic experiences she’s accumulated along the road. “Got hills to climb in my own sweet time,” she sings on easygoing opener “Lowland Trail,” while the propulsive “I Remember Carolina” takes her all around North America, from Carolina to California to Idaho, stopping at a Bob Dylan concert near Boston and ending with “the best burger in Texas.” My favorite sequence: “Went on a bender in Bozeman/ Sobered up in Hamilton/ Fell in love with a fisherman/ But it was catch and release.”

But these travelogs just as often blur with the ache that haunts Cilker’s songwriting. Written while floating down a river, the ambling country soul tune “Keep It On A Burner” deals with the nagging thoughts that interrupt otherwise pleasant days: “I got sidewalks, I got sunburned, I got books I haven’t read/ I got neighbors telling neighbors they’ll be burning up when they’re dead.” And though “Santa Rosa” ends with a restaurant recommendation — I do hope I can get breakfast at the old Comet II someday — it also nods to Cilker’s status as a prodigal daughter who might never come home. Over a plate of Christmas chile at a New Mexico diner, she notes, “I looked behind the counter/ Saw three crosses above the pies/ It all felt as familiar/ As the place I’d left behind.”

Other songs more directly focus on Cilker’s strained relations with her family and hometown; we don’t get a detailed account, but it seemingly has to do with her rejection of suburban life and the angry Fox News-style Christianity that often goes with it. The minor-key “Mother Told Her Mother Told Me” explores the tension over Cilker’s departure, cycling through takes from various relatives before concluding, “Oh, the love/ The way it cuts/ Better than a knife/ Bleeding for a lifetime.” On “Sound And Fury,” she both looks back wistfully at the valley (“It’s the Wreck at Los Gatos/ My home in Los Altos/ The apricots’ yearly return”) and rejects the life marked out for her there (“It’s a shirt we’ve been offered/ From the backs of our mothers/ I’m going I’m going I’m gone”). The stunning “With The Middle” either depicts her aimlessness before leaving home or a restlessness she still can’t shake: “What do I do with the middle between the coffee and the wine? The part of the day where my heart says, ‘I won’t do it this time.'”

The song that hooked me was the one that spells it out most plainly. “Crazy Or Died” plods along magisterially like an old gospel hymn, with a chorus so simple you commit it to memory right away: “Crazy or died/ Crazy or died/ Everyone I look up to has gone crazy or died.” It begins with a portrait of Maggio, a war veteran described as “a hug with two eyes,” who in his old age has been consumed by some unnamed negativity you can probably imagine. Later Cilker notes the disconnect between Jesus’ words and many of his followers and wonders whether a Second Coming would really go any better than the first: “If that guy comes back here/ He’ll go crazy or die.” Arriving at the height of a deeply sad song, such a jolt of dark humor is like fresh air in the lungs and a sweet taste on the tongue. It’s delightful.

Valley Of Heart’s Delight is out 9/15 on Fluff & Gravy.

Other albums of note out this week:

• Mitski’s The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We
• Nation Of Language’s Strange Disciple
• Woods’ Perennial
• Vagabon’s Sorry I Haven’t Called
• Alan Palomo’s World Of Hassle
• Baroness’ Stone
• Explosions In The Sky’s End
• Diddy’s The Love Album: Off The Grid
• Willie Nelson’s Bluegrass
• Nas’ Magic 3
• Worriers’ Trust Your Gut
• Demi Lovato’s Revamped
• C.O.F.F.I.N’s Australia Stops
• S. Carey & John Raymond’s Shadowlands
• Corey Taylor’s CMF2
• Sextile’s Push
• Gum’s Saturnia
• Madison Beer’s Silence Between Songs
• Brothers Osborne’s Brothers Osborne
• The Beaches’ Blame My Ex
• K.Flay’s MONO
• Buffalo Nichols’ The Fatalist
• Thirty Seconds To Mars’ It’s The End Of The World But It’s A Beautiful Day
• Vic Mensa’s VICTOR
• Bring Me The Horizon – POST HUMAN: NeX GEn
• Flat Worms’ Witness Marks
• Couch Prints’ Waterfall: Rebirth
• Sarah Mary Chadwick’s Messages To God
• FIZZ’s The Secret To Life
• Laura Weaver’s I Was Due For A Heartbreak
• Lewsberg’s Out & About
• Staind’s Confessions Of The Fallen
• Public Speaking’s An Apple Lodged In My Back
• TesseracT’s War Of Being
• Fat Mike’s Gets Strung Out
• Brian Setzer’s The Devil Always Collects
• Ralphie Choo’s Supernova
• Shakey Graves – Movie Of The Week
• Wheeler Walker Jr.’s Ram
• Corinne Bailey Rae’s Black Rainbows
• Serration’s Simulations Of Hell
• Haley Blais’ Wisecrack
• Bombino’s Sahel
• Gridlink’s Coronet Juniper
• Great Falls’ Objects Without Pain
• Bahamas’ Bootcut
• Herb Alpert’s Wish Upon A Star
• Magnitude’s Of Days Renewed…
• Barenaked Ladies’ In Flight
• Subsonic Eye’s All Around You
• RL Grime’s PLAY
• Stephen Marley’s Old Soul
• Tomb Mold’s The Enduring Spirit
• Courtney Barnett’s End Of The Day (Music From The Film Anonymous Club)
• Tobin Sprout’s Demos And Outtakes Two
• Jack Johnson’s Songs For Maui live album
• Steve Miller Band – J50: The Evolution Of The Joker
• Killer Mike’s MICHAEL DELUXE
• The Beths’ Expert In A Dying Field (Deluxe Edition)
• Switchfoot’s The Beautiful Letdown (Our Version): Deluxe Edition
• Octo Octa’s Dreams Of A Dancefloor EP
• La Doña’s Can’t Eat Clout EP
• Rozi Plain’s Bonus Prize EP

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