There’s beauty to be found in disaster. As Bryan John Appleby creates a musical earthquake on “The Fault Line,” the opening track from The Narrow Valley, undulating vocalized ooos that mirror the poetic calamity of the actively rolling hills. While woodwinds back his acoustic guitar picking, Appleby paints a lyrical picture of when “the walls began to shed their plaster hides” as “the fault line cracked a long smile / a hideous rock tooth grin open wide.” Having to be dragged away from the ruined scene (“Then I stood helpless in the doorway / Just staring at the room on the floor / And you pulled my sleeve / Said, It’s time to leave”) sets a tone for the uneasy loveliness that follows on the album. The Narrow Valley transports the Seattle singer-songwriter away from his folky Northwest roots and returns him to the land of his youth: Central California. In this setting, Appleby finds a new, lush sonic landscape that stirs with orchestral majesty.
The Narrow Valley comes as a stylistic surprise. Appleby’s sophomore LP abandons the indie folk ways of 2011’s Fire on the Vine, opting for a distinctly Californian brand of orchestral pop. The sweeping sounds that back each tune fall somewhere between Brian Wilson’s groundbreaking pop experimentation circa the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, the scores of golden era Walt Disney animated features (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Dumbo, Bambi, etc.), and the fluttering orchestrated backing St. Vincent employed on her 2009 record, Actor (but with less of a rocking edge).
Appleby achieves these musical heights through collaboration with producer Sam Anderson and a deep cast of his musician friends. The instrumentation soars throughout the record, but the world comes to life in the cinematic details like the songbird-esque whistling on “And Now… The Narrow Valley!” and the wooden galloping rhythm that pops up on “Nothing Moves.” The entire album flows as if it were the soundtrack for a forgotten big screen classic from the 1940s, with lyric-free tracks like “Moss Landing, in a Dream” and “Intermission” acting as sonic connective tissue gently guiding the listener between Appleby’s various poetic musings.
The songwriting approach Appleby employs on The Narrow Valley adds the the album’s unique feel. Everything focuses on creating a sense of scene and place through the stories. There’s not a chorus to be found on the the record, and only a few spare rhyming lines find their way scattered throughout the 15 tracks. A theme of soured love in the valley begins to emerge on “Shoes and Hat,” a subtle tune sung from the perspective of a child of troubled parents (“He grips the wheel while snapping at the dial / She wrings her wrinkled hands and looks outside / The silent sun is high / I might be sitting in the back but man, I’m gone”).
From there the characters spend most of the time drifting around the valley, aimlessly searching for a sense of purpose and connection that seems ever out of reach. Appleby’s lyrics manage to be equally sharp and melancholy, whether they focus on wayward sons escaping the sounds of parental discord on “No One Knows” (“And every reckless evening / Slipping silent out the house / Walk between the rows and alleys on your own / And you might go down with the women / You might get off fighting cops / But right now you need the skyline / Breathing fast and climbing high along the rooftops”) or a father’s drunken foggy drive on “Highway 1am” (“Barreling through the fog / Red trees are calling for my car / What am I doing? / Little white crosses line the road / Right before I pass out / I see you sleeping In your room”).
The Narrow Valley feels like an escape from everything else that currently constitutes the Seattle sound. It’s a detour caused by zoning out on a drive down the Pacific Coast and missing an exit or two, but just deciding to go where the road takes you. The unexpected destination may not have the smoothest roadways, but damn the scenery is gorgeous.