A second wonderful instalment of Southern country storytelling from an emerging star.
‘Valley Of Heart’s Delight’ is the follow up to Margo Cilker’s 2021 debut record, the barely pronounceable ‘Pohorylle’. The debut was a massive critical success and this second release sees Cilker double down on the sound that created such a stir first time round. That is not to say that she has made ‘Pohorylle’ part 2, far from it. The new record expands and develops both her musical palette and narrative concerns to deliver an album that may well be better than her feted debut.
Acclaim for ‘Pohorylle’ often centred on its off-kilter appropriation of country tropes into new shapes and colours. Pitching Cilker as someone who “pushes against conventions of the genre that don’t fit her perspective” in order to reinvigorate “Southern country-folk storytelling.” The story was, and remains, of someone who is at once immersed in a love of the mores of authentic country music but is also determined not to be bounded by them. It is impossible to mistake ‘Valley Of Heart’s Delight’ for anything other than a country record, the cavernous twang on the record’s opening riff leaves no room for doubt about that. Yet it is not quite like any other country record you know either. Sure there are clear reference points, but it is, unmistakably and uniquely, Cilker’s own voice that cuts through loud and clear.
There are 11 direct and deceptively modest songs that comprise this record. Each has an immediate and compelling appeal and yet each also retains an oblique quality that means we have to work just that bit harder to fully connect with them and it is the work we do that ultimately makes ‘Valley Of Heart’s Delight’ so rewarding. The relaxed and freewheeling style of the debut continues through this record but the arrangements are a little fuller and the accompaniment a little less understated. It is as if the crew involved in its creation (pretty much the same as first time round) all naturally decided to take a little step further along the road together.
So Cilker along with producer (and drummer) Serah Cahoone return to the same studio in Vancouver, Washington and re-enlist Jenny Conlee-Drizos to offer piano, organ, and accordion; Rebecca Young to play bass and Kelly Pratt to blow horns. Additional twang is brought by Paul Brainard’s pedal steel and guitar Annie Staninec’s fiddle. The back story of these players, performing with, among others, The Decemberists, Neko Case, M. Ward, Richmond Fontaine and Mary Gauthier is testament to Cilker’s emergent artistic status and to the sound of ‘Valley Of Heart’s Delight’. The thoroughly charming and engaging sonic setting created by this crew is also a perfect match for Cilker’s robust and assertive yet vulnerable voice. In the same way that Gram or John Prine managed to commune with the emotional core of a song, Cilker communicates most resonantly through the little imperfections of her singing, especially when joined by sister Sarah who contributes harmonies.
There is an arc to ‘Valley Of Heart’s Delight’, which guides us through the record. Beginning with three musically buoyant tracks, filled with the joys of life. Opener ‘Lowland Trail’ is driven by that tele’ twang and accordion and fiddle, ‘Keep it on a Burner’ has a sexy swagger, like we might not have associated with Cilker previously. She uses her best Lu growl to really get our attention, coming on like our New Orleans Saturday night is really about to take off. Best of all is ‘I Remember Carolina’, a jubilant festival of Cilker’s travels across the US, recalling joyous experiences including a paean to what must be one hell of a burger (food gets a lot of mentions on the record, always a good thing). Things become more reflective as the record progresses and the themes of connections and contradictions start to emerge more prominently. She sings of what connects us with others, with our places and their landscapes but also what complicates these connections. In ‘Mother Told Her Mother Told Me’ she argues that “I don’t need this town, I will always find another…” but is immediately put in her place by a family member who contradicts her “If you leave this town, you will never find another”. There are tender ruminations evoking people and places, there are regretful musings on what Cilker has called “missteps and redemptions” and there is even a little darkness hidden away – “I got neighbours telling neighbours, they’ll be burning up when they’re dead.”
This arc to the record is of mood rather than narrative. Sometimes there is a mismatch between musical mood and words, a mismatch that emphasises the songs’ affect rather than causing confusion. Even when Cilker is doing sad or regretful she swings and she stays sassy. The beauty of this record is the way she introduces us to so many moods, yet remains utterly consistent. It is her voice loud and clear throughout. There are few artists operating right now who have such a unique and powerful identity and yet retain such a perfect core of tradition. Listening, we know at once that this is a wonderful genre record but we also know that is a Margo Cilker record and right here both of those are beautiful things.