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Audio Reviews
The Valley
by Eisley
Equal Vision Records (2011)
The Valley
To be honest, I haven’t paid all that much attention to Eisley since their full-length debut, Room Noises, dropped in early 2005. The Texan quintet was a breath of fresh air at the time, their wistful tunes steeped in childhood fantasy and prone to imaginative flights of lyrical fancy, their exercises in magical realism deftly delivered in lovely solos, charming duets, and delightful three-part choruses. All of which were brightly backed by sturdy if somewhat conventional pop musicianship—guitars and piano, bass and drums; hooks a-plenty, harmonies galore.

After a few spins of Room Noises, which included the unassumingly catchy singles “Marvelous Things” and “Telescope Eyes”, I fully expected that Eisley’s inoffensively twee take on pop would enable them to follow the breakout artist’s usual route of international tours, sold-out shows, summer festivals, soundtrack appearances, and promo performances on late-night talk shows. While Room Noises wasn’t exactly a canon-worthy masterpiece of pop, it nevertheless stood out at the time. (That, and truly innovative compositions and nuanced lyrical storytelling are hardly requirements for popular success in the first place.) Not to mention that sisters Stacy, Sherri, and Chauntelle, brother Weston, and cousin Garron DuPree are all rather handsome; one would think that the combination of pretty songs and even prettier packaging would have made for a marketing slam-dunk, particularly during Eisley’s seven or so years spent with Warner Music Group imprint Reprise Records.

But, as it turns out, Eisley’s major label career belied those expectations of fame and fortune. Surrounded by emo-tinged alt-rockers in the early-to-mid Naughties, Eisley’s shimmering pop sensibilities cast them as the odd duck in the lineup. Demure and content where others were sultry or rebellious, Eisley’s performances struck a reserved, somewhat square-ish counterpoint to the riotous stage antics of touring mates like Brand New and Taking Back Sunday. It was a matter of strange bedfellows, really, and Eisley struggled to find a suitable match.

While Room Noises managed to garner generally positive reviews and respectable retail sales, it was hardly a certified-gold success. As such, Eisley’s 2007 follow-up album, Combinations, upped the rock-and-roll riffs, hearty percussion, and rousing breakdowns in an effort to draw in the pop-averse listeners who had shied away from the soft touch of their earlier material. But mainstream acceptance remained elusive once again. Even with the promotional benefits of positive press, national exposure (via a performance on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien”) and a dedicated on-line fan-base, the stronger, more rock-friendly approach of songs like “Invasion” and “I Could Be There for You” couldn’t quite propel Eisley into the widespread public’s consciousness, nor could they lead Combinations to Top 40 sales figures. So it goes.

After roughly seven years in the majors—a time which bore witness to a minor line-up change, two full-length albums, seven EPs, a handful of weddings, a divorce, a broken engagement, and a slew of stateside and international tours—Eisley made the decision to let their contract with Reprise expire in February 2010. The following November, the band announced that they had signed on with Albany’s Equal Vision Records, and were set to release their third full-length album, The Valley, in March of 2011.

This brings us to the present. Musically, things are more-or-less the same as they have ever been for Eisley. With The Valley, Sherri and Stacy DuPree once again share songwriting and lead vocal duties, and their lilting airs rarely stray from that well-trodden path of effortlessly palatable pop harmonies, trailing lightly over Chauntelle and Sherri’s reserved guitars and Stacy’s twinkling keys while deftly navigating Garron and Weston’s burbling riffs and staid percussion. Set pieces notwithstanding, Eisley have once again endeavoured to augment their harmony-heavy jangle-pop sensibilities with a bit of rock-n-roll bombast, most notably with heavier kitwork and punchier riffs from the rhythm section, plus the occasional shot of overdriven power chords and the voluminous drones of a string quartet. Obvious changes all, but hardly unexpected, let alone wholly out of character.

What is worth mentioning is the general tone of The Valley. By turns both darker and dourer than the childhood whimsy of Room Noises and the nascent romances of Combinations, The Valley is a love letter tossed into a raging sea of injured pride, broken trust, and suspected infidelities. On one hand, you have Sherri waxing poetic on her split with ex-husband (and New Found Glory guitarist) Chad Gilbert. On the other, you have Stacy and Sherri each composing heartfelt ballads to their husbands—Mutemath’s Darren King and Say Anything’s Max Bemis, respectively—and appreciative odes to their family besides.

To be sure, The Valley is a bit bipolar, and the suddenness with which Eisley shift between love and antipathy can be more than a little disorienting, especially if one is unfamiliar with the personal drama to which both Sherri and Stacy so often allude. While opening track “The Valley” starts things off with a ruminatory, purportedly head-clearing walk through the song/album’s titular hollow—a metaphorical low point, sprinkled with arco strings and chiming keys—it’s not ‘til the triumphant chorus, pulsing drums, and strident guitars of “Smarter” and the upbeat dissolution of “Watch It Die” that the album really begins to explore its central issues.

Although there is a good bit of venom and vitriol flowing ‘neath The Valley, it is often suppressed by a somewhat forced sense of sympathy for the accused, as well as self-recriminations on the part of the sisters DuPree for feeling so angry in the first place. Such magnanimity strains credulity, but credit is due to Sherri and Stacy for brandishing the lyrical olive branch rather than the stiletto, even though playing the victim-turned-peacemaker (almost to a fault) does rob the album of some of its intended post-break-up catharsis.

Then again, The Valley is mainly about finding one’s way out of poor relationships and their attendant depression, so it’s perhaps best to mind one’s manners and avoid dwelling o’erlong… or, y’know, flipping fingers, breaking furniture, and causing a scene. No one likes a restraining order, yeah?

Just so, “Oxygen Mask”, “Better Love”, “I Wish”, and “Kind” offset the somber bitterness which informs the first third of The Valley. While the string-supported “Oxygen Mask” is vague enough that it could be read as either romantically resuscitative or unhealthily co-dependent, the weighty guitar rock of “Better Love” is far more direct in relaying its appreciation for a lover’s unerring support. Likewise, the acoustic-led duets of “I Wish” and the piano-based croons of “Kind” are nothing if not tokens of utmost affection, even if the latter is a bit schmaltzy when the strings kick in full-force.

Beginning with heartrending grief and moving on to restorative romance, The Valley eventually ends up somewhere in-between the two. Spurred onward by droning, chiming keys and light, bright hi-hat before calling up a full-band attack of sparse guitar riffs and propulsive rhythms, “Mr. Moon” pits disbelief and despair against the comforts of home and the unwavering emotional support of family and friends. While bittersweet, “Mr. Moon” is, like The Valley in general, rather more resolute rather than resigned, its sentimental back-and-forth continuing into the betrayal-to-betrothal narrative of “Please”.

While by no means a neat lyrical ribbon with which to tie up The Valley, let alone permanently pack its sentiments away, album-ender “Ambulance” nevertheless provides a rousing, string-aided and harmony-enlivened look back at the emotional toll of a dissolving relationship. “Thought you were made for me”, croons Stacy, “and we shared our history. But in time you’ll tear your eyes far away, like a rubbernecker’s gaze. And is it really safe to say that we’re just made that way, made to brave the pain?”

Seems that way. Though it must needs be said that the act of climbing up and out of such miserable circumstances is rarely performed with such grace.

Following appearances at SXSW, Eisley embark upon their Turning Tides Tour with The Narrative and Christie DuPree in late April:

Houston, TX/SXSW Dates:
March 16 @ 508 East 6th Street – Paste Magazine Party (6PM)
March 16 @ Barbarella Patio – SXSW Showcase (11PM)
March 17 @ Dirty Dog Bar – Equal Vision Records Party (4PM)
March 18 @ 504 Trinity Street – Pure Volume House (4PM)

April 26 @ Vinyl – Atlanta, GA
April 27 @ Cat’s Cradle – Carrboro, NC
April 28 @ Jammin’ Java – Vienna, VA
April 29 @ The Southern – Charlottesville, VA
May 1 @ Bamboozle Festival – East Rutherford, NJ
May 2 @ Brighton Music Hall – Boston, MA
May 3 @ World Cafe Live – Wilmington, DE
May 6 @ Beaumont Club – Kansas City, MO
May 10 @ Club Congress – Tucson, AZ
May 11 @ Martini Ranch – Phoenix, AZ
May 15 @ Troubadour – Los Angeles, CA
May 17 @ Rio Theatre – Santa Cruz, CA
May 19 @ Neumos – Seattle, WA
May 20 @ Wonder Ballroom – Portland, OR
May 21 @ The Venue – Boise, ID
May 24 @ Varsity Theater – Minneapolis, MN
May 26 @ The Bottom Lounge – Chicago, IL
May 27 @ Grog Shop – Cleveland, OH
May 28 @ Bled Fest – Grand Rapids, MI
May 30 @ 12th & Porter – Nashville, TN
May 31 @ WorkPlay Theatre – Birmingham, AL
June 1 @ The Parish at House of Blues – New Orleans, LA
June 3 @ Warehouse Live Studio – Houston, TX
June 4 @ Granada Theater – Dallas, TX
Posted by: Tom Körp

Audio Reviews (March 16th, 2011)

Tags: audio, reviews, eisley, the valley, equal vision records