Bobby Jo Valentine – Fox Eyes, Whale Heart
Surprises are increasingly scant after multiple decades listening to music. If your tastes are broad based and you have enormous curiosity, you’ll eventually cover the gamut of most possibilities. A moment of genuine surprise after all of that time is revelatory on multiple levels. It brings you back to those first years discovering bands and artists that will change your life. The charge of finding an album you’ve been searching for, the discovery of a new artist, those experiences come once for most of us. Time and technology have undone the largest portion of that experience. The moment of genuine surprise reminds you that your growth isn’t over and there’s still room to go even further than you ever suspected. Bobby Jo Valentine’s Fox Eyes, Whale Heart surprised me. Folk songs aren’t new to me. Pop infused acoustic music isn’t revelatory. What surprised me is the eloquent, unfettered honesty that Valentine brings to the collection, a rare clear-eyed ability to see himself and the world through a prism of poetry and plain-spokenness capable of seizing the heart.
Sprightly mandolin kicks off “Carry Me Away”. The album opener is a slice of pure pop bliss with a clear, exuberant vocal. Valentine’s lyrics touch on common tropes for the song’s theme, but the imagery is stamped with unquestionably individual color. Valentine introduces a number of exceptional instrumental voices as the song develops. “Bones” has an orchestrated build that many Valentine songs favor and much of the same acoustic underpinning, but the truly distinguishing musical move here is bringing piano into the mix and interweaving it so tightly with the guitar. “Haunted House” is one of the album’s sharpest pieces of writing and witheringly honest. Valentine’s commitment as a vocalist is apparent as he never backs off of a single word and delivers the lyric with unflinching phrasing. The title cut on Fox Eyes, Whale Heart is another mix of pure folk with upbeat light rock posturing. It presents a quandary at this point on the album – Valentine has obviously perfected a songwriting formula on this release and it brings uniformity to his music that makes him more viable as a major label prospect, but he risks slipping into a rut. However, it does betray his influences in an interesting way. The formula is straight out of classic rock music – contrasting moments of light and shade, build tension, then release it in a spectacular fashion. Many will love it – Valentine does it exceptionally well. Others will want to hear more.
“Lion in Summer” is invigorating acoustic pop in the mold of many Valentine songs and his stirring vocal celebrates life in a genuine way. It’s one of the album’s crowning pop moments thanks to his singing and energy level. Valentine hits another peak with “Ever Since”, one of the album’s most intimate moments that provides listeners with a vivid glimpse of his personal history. The album’s final pinnacle comes with “Ungrateful”, another nakedly honest piece that finds Valentine alone on his acoustic guitar. His lyrics are some of the most biting self-examination you’ll hear committed to recording this year.
Fox Eyes, Whale Heart didn’t excite me at first glance. Another album from a sensitive guitar player. Finishing my first listen filled me with a good feeling of encountering a truly unique voice plying his trade in the wilderness. Valentine has established a small but growing fan base and this album will surely carry his popularity to a higher level.
8 out of 10 stars.