Album: The Valley
In Brief: A disappointingly uneven, though admirably honest, breakup album that finds Eisley drifting a bit too close to the middle of the road for comfort.
Whoever’s job it is to keep the DuPree family tree up to date, they must be under about as much stress as a map maker trying to get the boundaries of European countries straight in the 1990s. The past few years have brought a flurry of relationship status changes to the band of siblings who comprise Eisley, culminating in a flurry of weddings that have left sisters Sherri DuPree, Stacy DuPree, Chauntelle DuPree, and brother Weston DuPree all married to fellow musicians (with Stacy’s marriage to MuteMath drummer Darren King being the most awesome musical union in my book). Along the way, there have been broken engagements and one marriage cut tragically short. Normally such things happen behind the scenes for musicians who haven’t reached the upper strata of pop culture, and thus don’t need to influence anyone’s opinion of the music they’re making, but in the case of Sherri’s divorce from New Found Glory guitarist Chad Gilbert, it’s a useful bit of backstory to know before going into the band’s latest album, The Valley.
Yep, this is one of those breakup albums. With most of popular music being love songs, and with an artist’s capacity to write such songs being largely dependent on their own views of love, it’s understandably common for several songs on an album to capture an artist at their most lovey-dovey or their most downtrodden as real life influences the thoughts they’re expressing. It’s normal for entire albums to get dedicated to analyzing (and some would say over-analyzing) the dissolution of a bad relationship, and this can range from the simple “screw you” taken up to eleven with the guarantee that fist-pumping fans will take the artist’s side, to more mature expressions of understanding about what went wrong and eventual acceptance of what wasn’t meant to be. Whether this comes across as wise and universally relatable, or just self-centered and depressing, depends heavily on the artist, and whether they’re writing in an area of their own expertise. Alanis Morissette and Rob Thomas, for example, are widely known for some of their most bitter breakup songs, but they are generally pretty good at getting down to the “whys” beneath all of the anger and heartbreak. A younger artist, perhaps experiencing heartbreak for the first time, often won’t be able to get past “I gave you my whole heart and you screwed me over.” And I’d put Eisley somewhere in between. That makes The Valley a bit of a difficult listen even though I feel nothing but genuine empathy for what Sherri and her family apparently went through as her marriage fell apart.
The tricky thing is Eisley is that wide-eyed, youthful innocence has been one of their strengths on past albums. Their major label debut Room Noises was rife with imaginative language, sometimes depicting stories of love and loss, but sometimes just describing bizarre dreams coming from overly active minds. I enjoyed that record greatly, and it quickly made Eisley one of my favorite bands. Combinations followed, finding the group a bit more plainspoken in their dealings with real-world events, though keeping the language inventive in several cases. Some might see a move away from fantasy-land and toward regular, conversational lyrics to be a sign of maturity in a band, and those listeners may see The Valley as a bit of a growth spurt for Eisley, but for me, it feels a bit like the band’s lost their uniqueness in the process. I could never expect Sherri and Stacy to go on living in a fantasy world and not address the very real heartbreak in their lives, but I feel like I could have expected them to express it in more of a storybook setting, by way of interesting visions and allegories, rather than just bluntly summing up, “Here’s what happened”. Not all fantasy stories need to be happy or escapist; I just figure an artist should play to their strengths. Combine this move toward more “normal” songwriting with a shift toward bite-size radio-friendly guitar rock and away from the more fantastical soundscapes of some of their past work, and it’s easy to understand why I’m rather underwhelmed with this new album from a band that is otherwise still one of my favorites. I still like a lot of the songs, but they just don’t evoke the same imagery that would have led me to say a certain song feels like it could fit in on a Tim Burton soundtrack or emerge from an elaborate children’s pop-up book or something. Now I have to settle for trying to keep people from confusing the band with a poor man’s Sixpence None the Richer. (And I love Sixpence, but I’d say that Sixpence even at their most pedestrian is probably more interesting than much of this record.)
On the other hand, some of the core Eisley elements are still there. A few tracks have melodies that tend toward the heavenly. Sherri and Stacy’s sisterly harmonies can still slay me when the two voices are in full effect. And I relate to some of the pathos. So while this might be a step toward the ordinary, they still did alright, and a few songs from this disc will probably still endure as fan favorites once the upheaval that gave them context is no longer visible in the rear view mirror.
1. The Valley
If you managed to catch the Fire Kite EP back in 2009, then you’ve heard a demo of this song. Even in its finished form, it still sounds a bit underdone to my ears, but looking past that, it’s got a classically “rickety” melody that recalls some of Eisley’s better tunes, and there’s a string section chugging away, giving it a bit of extra momentum. Stacy opens the record by immediately setting a tone of heartbreak, the kind of deep distress that has her feeling like she’s going through a valley, which is a common enough analogy for hard times, but she gets enough mileage out of it to make it worthwhile. (You know this ain’t the same old Eisley when the music stops for a second to punctuate the line “I don’t believe in magic.” What’s really heartbreaking is the way others seem to react to the trials she’s going through, giving her advice about right and wrong and basically looking down their noses as if she’s on the “wrong” side of things, as if to imply that whatever she’s going through is her own fault. It could even be read as a statement of defiance against the segment of Eisley’s audience that expects typical “Christian rock” sentiments due to having some vague idea of the band members’ personal beliefs, but maybe I’m just reading some of my own angst into that. Anyway, while snark isn’t something I generally expect from Eisley, I’ve got to admit that the lines “Tell me why you know the things you do/And how’d you get there?/To be there, it must be great for you.” make for a pretty good zinger against those who act like they’ve got it all together. This one’s grown on me, despite not being at all what I expect from Eisley, and it’s now my favorite track on the album.
Here’s the first track where Sherri gets into the meat of the subject matter. It’s all right there out in the open from the first verse. “If I had one wish, it’d be for you and all your friends that didn’t like me/If I had one wish, it’d be that we had danced more at that apocryphal wedding.” OUCH. I actually like that turn of phrase, “apocryphal wedding”, especially since the marriage itself lasted less than a year, so her second marriage has already outlasted it. Chauntelle’s somewhat edgy guitar riffs make this one of Eisley’s angriest songs (though if there’s one thing this group’s never been quite able to do convincingly, it’s throw down a genuinely fierce rocker), and Sherri plays it off as a mock apology, which becomes more sarcastic and bitter as it goes. Parts of it are clever, like her “apologizing” for not being a perfect angel in the second verse, and the chorus, which is a bit of a bait-and-switch: “Ooooh, I’m smarter than you/Ooooh, I’m smarter than you think.” But by the time we reach the bridge, it’s degenerated to the point of petty insults: “You are the narcissist/You’re everything you saw in me.” I figure you can’t have it both ways with this type of song. Either you’re genuinely over it and you get to be a smug smart-aleck, or you’re still in the thick of it and you’ve got to be honest and say it still hurts. This song, fun as it is, plays the middle ground between the two, which I suppose is fair considering the conflicted feelings one deals with after a breakup. But it feels like they settled for stealing second base where they could have hit a home run.
3. Watch It Die
Decent enough pop song here – piano chords chiming out right at the beginning, peppy rhythm with little bits of hand claps to propel it along at one point, and a straightforward but sugary melody mostly sung by Stacy. This is a massive case of lyrical dissonance, because it’s basically about the moment a woman realizes she has no feelings left for her man whatsoever. The lightbulb suddenly comes on, and she’s fallen out of love, and now he’s just a mess left on her hands, a loose cannon she doesn’t know how to keep in line without any hint left of the things that once drew her to him. It’s unapologetically sad, and it plays up the melodrama reasonably well even if the musical choices here are odd. It’s hard to know what can cause such a radical shift in feelings toward someone you once considered a soulmate without actually having been through that, but the line “My love for you was faulty” is a good hint. Divorce is tragic, but sometimes the real tragedy is that we don’t know what real love is when we walk into marriage in the first place. It’s not my place to judge whether this is what happened for Sherri – I’m just going off of her artistic interpretation of the scenario. What she feels is more important to the song than whatever actually happened, I figure.
I believe the story behind this one is that Stacy wrote a song out of empathy for her sister – which is odd if it’s true, because Sherri sings it even though it addresses the woman whose husband won’t come home in the third person. While the tone is more typical pop/rock, and it’s beyond obvious from the title that this isn’t the happy, bouncy kind, this turns out to be one of the album’s better tracks, overcoming a chorus that commits the sin of telling rather than showing (“Sad! I feel sad for you, so sad!”) with some sisterly advice and empathetic barbs aimed at an apparent manchild who is too dumb to realize how good he had it. It’s mostly the way that the word “sad” is held – it gives the album one of its strongest hooks. Men with a fear of commitment might feel a little insecure listening to this one.
5. Oxygen Mask
The classical side of Eisley’s dream pop equation emerges slightly here, with a lovely piano intro by Sherri and the strings once again playing a prominent role. Sometimes it’s easy to lose these details amidst a series of uniformly up-tempo songs (which is one of this album’s great weaknesses – the entire front side can seem to have little variation at first). But examining this song more closely, I’m starting to realize that I don’t understand it at all, which is actually a bit of relief, because that’s the side of Eisley I was afraid of losing. Stacy’s lyrics are more ambiguous, more allegorical, and while that puts me at a bit of a distance from the refrain of “You’re breathing through an oxygen mask/Give me one more chance”, I feel like there’s more meat to dig into in this song, thus rewarding the time spent with it moreso than some of the straightforward ones. I still think they’re settling for auto-pilot where they could really play something powerful, though – Chauntelle in particular sounds like she wants to be let loose during the bridge, but instead settles for a modest electric guitar solo. This group could stand to break out of their three-to-four-minute pop song format, even if they are lovely pop songs.
6. Better Love
This one almost passes as a robust rock song. Chauntelle’s certainly trying harder, with a bit of palm muting and a dark, minor key riff. What might sound like a cheerful love song about two people improving each other’s lives sounds a shade twisted in this context, as they declare their dedication to guiding and defending one another. (Yep, I pulled the same stunt as the picky Christian audience I snarked about earlier, initially hearing “If you’re my guide, I’m your guide” as “If you’re my god, I’m your god“, and cocking an eyebrow in the process. But in my defense, there’s a “Hallelujah” that rings out right after that.) I suppose one could still read it as a genuine love song, but it sounds more like co-dependency to me, pulling apart promises that could never quite be fulfilled because two people expected too much of each other. Analysis aside, this is one of the better tracks for the rhythm section, with Weston and his cousin Garron DuPree laying down a very simple but very addictive rhythm for the girls to play on top of. The boys in this band don’t always get the credit they deserve.
7. I Wish
At long last, we shift gears, taking the tempo down a notch for a genuinely sweet acoustic track that absolutely drips with eager longing, hearkening back to some of Eisley’s most compelling and innocent songs such as “Just Like We Do” and “Combinations”, while having enough of a beat and a constant melodic hook looping through it to also remind me of “Come Clean”. It’s an instant winner despite the fact that those doe-eyed “Ooh-wah-oohs” might be a bit of a cheap plot to fill space where more words might otherwise fit. I can’t help it. The band is in full-on puppy dog eye mode here, and I’m eating up every note of it. I hear those words “I wish you felt this way”, and I hear the cries of a heart beginning for another chance at genuine love. This could be the one last plea to make amends with a man on his way out the door, or it could be the first signs of trust expressed toward a new lover after the heartache left by the old one finally starts to mend. Either way, it’s a heavenly standout on an album that really needed the breath of fresh air at this point.
OK, now I’m really getting a “Combinations” vibe, because this song is every bit as gentle and gooey as that one – and I mean this in a totally positive way. It’s little more than light, slightly playful piano chords and strings that swell up at just the right moments. I read it as a simple love song at first, especially with Stacy’s the opening line “I’ll buy you a diamond if you want me to”, but looking more deeply at it, I now see it as an expression of empathy between sisters. Stacy’s essentially offering to help carry her big sis through the heartbreak, trying to fill in the gaps left by the affection her man apparently couldn’t find for her, and expressing an earnest desire for her to not come out of this with a bitter and jaded outlook on life. Beyond all of the angst of the songs that detail the breakup, this is the song that feels like like it represents the true heart of the album – and despite all of the hurt that’s been felt, Eisley still as a kind heart underneath.
9. Mr. Moon
The intensity begins to ramp back up again as The Valley turns into its home stretch. This is a song that exemplifies a decent compromise between adult Eisley and child Eisley, confronting the very real tears of a grown woman’s shattered hopes as the news of her husband’s betrayal first sinks in, but also finding her addressing “Mr. Moon” as a character who offers solace, personified as a guardian angel in the sky, watching over her. Stacy’s icy keyboards and Chauntelle’s electric guitar make help to make it one of the album’s more musically satisfying songs, standing out from the pack of “sort-of-rock” songs earlier in the album due to Sherri’s overtly dramatic melody. When the two sisters team up for the chorus, it comes close to sending shivers down my spine. And there’s a veiled yet effective threat in the second verse: “Bones crack and fingers blister/I might console you, but look at my sisters/Brilliant like fireflies up in their bedroom.” Yeah, dude, you better run! My only real criticism of this song is that it quite suddenly ramps up the intensity for what sounds like should be a powerful coda, with the guitars and drums hitting every quarter note and the background vocals locked in a haunting chant, but then it just dissipates after a few bars. That’s a spot where they really should have broken out of the confines of radio-friendly song length and just let an inspired jam rip.
Unfortunately, what should be a defiant and triumphant final stretch for the album starts to run out of steam here, more or less rehashing what we already knew in the form of a stuttering, whimpering song that might be Eisley’s weakest yet. I realize that sounds harsh, especially considering that these words are the cries of a woman realizing her husband’s moved on and fallen in love with someone else. Really powerful, gut-wrenching songs could be written about such a thing. Instead, they settle for perfunctory rhymes and completely transparent descriptions, as if the band’s grasp of language suddenly got catapulted back to high school (actually, before that, because some of these ladies were writing some reasonably poetic stuff at high school age). “Please, oh please, don’t do this to me/Baby please, oh please don’t get over me”, the chorus pines. it doesn’t help that the melody, at times, feels like a weak reflection of “Mr. Moon”. While passable as filler, this track sticks out as an unneeded bit of redundancy when considered in the larger context of the album. And since Eisley albums tend to be short, they can’t really afford to waste a track on filler.
I will freely admit that my mind could be playing tricks on me with this final track, making it difficult to accept as the last word what was actually the first word on the Fire Kite EP. The track wavers between sparse piano ballad and bombastic, dramatic power ballad, the melody weaving about uneasily in a manner reminiscent of “I Wasn’t Prepared”. The metaphor’s pretty clear from the outset – Stacy plays the role of a woman so traumatized by emotional distress that it feels like a physical wound. The nod to their Christian beliefs is subtle, but effective as she pleas “Send me a redeemer”. What’s not so effective is the pedestrian phrasing that gets by with a heckuva lot of “Oohs” and “Whoas” and “Oh no”s where actual lyrics might have helped to fill in the metaphor a bit more convincingly. Don’t get me wrong, the wordless vocalization plays the drama to the hilt, making it a good performance piece for the band, but read that chorus on paper and it just seems to fizzle out: “‘Cause I was told to get out, told to leave/Told I had my things in the parking lot/No no no, no no no no no no, yeah/Yeah, just send me that ambulance/Ooh whoooaaaaaaah!/Ooh whoooaaaaaah!” Throw in some so-okay-it’s-average phrasing that talks generically about whether everything’s gonna be alright (and they’ve used that vague hope of being “alright” too much on this album in lieu of more convincing statements), and end it on the underwhelming cliffhanger “I know how it usually goes”, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a track that would have been effective in the middle of an album, but that needs more fleshing out to serve as a bona fide finale. I’m largely unsatisfied at this point, knowing that Combinations was even shorter than this, but also feeling that it wrapped up appropriately, where The Valley just leaves me in the middle of a big mess.
But let’s be fair to Eisley. The Valley was not only born out of a period of personal heartbreak, but also professional frustration as they turned out new material that the major label they were attached to at the time summarily ignored. Corporate restructuring left the band out in the cold at Warner Bros., without anyone at the label to really champion them. Singles from Combinations were essentially “non-existent”, despite being advertised otherwise. So the group had to fight just to get anything new out at all, resulting in a record that languished in development hell for years (in fact, it only came out this year, long after the dust had settled and Sherri had found herself happily married to her second husband, Max Bemis of Say Anything). So I can see why, upon getting re-signed to Equal Vision Records, the band would just want to put out what they’d slaved over and not go back and try to augment it with thoughts and feelings that might now be out of place. As much as The Valley might feel unfinished, the fact that it’s actually been done for a while now gives me hope that it won’t be long until the band is able to follow up with a much more interesting chapter in their ongoing story.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Valley $1.50
Watch It Die $1
Oxygen Mask $1
Better Love $1
I Wish $1.50
Mr. Moon $1.50
Sherri DuPree-Bemis: Lead vocals, guitars
Stacy DuPree: Lead vocals, keyboards, guitars
Chauntelle DuPree: Lead guitar, backing vocals
Weston DuPree: Drums, percussion
Garron DuPree: Bass
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