It wasn’t long ago – about two decades – when the southern US was the place to find the hottest, upcoming indie band. From Louisville to Athens, Georgia to Austin, outfits such as My Morning Jacket, Drive-by Truckers, Okkervil River, and Shearwater were transforming rock ‘n roll. Or more accurately, they were re-defining southern rock, bringing the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Black Crowes, and CCR into the 21st Century. The height of the genre’s revival occurred in the mid- to late-2000s before it fizzled out with the surge in popularity of pop, hip-hop, and electronic. Even bands that resurrected guitar-driven rock began to experiment with more funk, soul, and pop arrangements.
A new wave of southern and folk-rockers, however, has arrived. They have brought fresh ideas, youthful energy, and unbridled emotion to the field. Angel Olsen, Big Thief, Mothers, Lucy Dacus, and Kevin Morby are among the leaders of this Great Enlightenment. Joining them are Valley Queen, who have quietly awed the likes of NPR and Buzzbands LA since their arrival four years ago. With their debut album, Supergiant, they have firmly established themselves as one of indie rock’s finest bands.
Supergiant is a contemporary rock classic. Of the record’s ten songs, half are perfection. Opener “Silver Tongue” is the appetizer. It echoes of the Deep South in the early ’90s with its heavy rhythms and distorted guitars. While her band mates hammer on their instruments, front woman Natalie Carol soothingly recounts one individual’s struggles to escape the madness, sadness, and expectations that have overwhelmed her. What follows are a trio of songs that form one of the best one-two-three punches of all-time.
“Supergiant” exemplifies what indie-rock should be. It is anthemic yet gritty, rocking yet euphoric. Gerry Doot’s drumming leads the way with his chest-pounding approach while Shawn Morones’ sizzling guitar is reminiscent of one J. Mascis. Carol’s siren-like vocals, though, take the track to another place. They rattle bones and penetrate deep into one’s core, hollering to us that before our time is up we all can be “supergiants on Earth”.
The face-melting “Chasing the Muse” follows. It’s not a face-melter in a ferocious rock ‘n roll sense, although the guitar work and rhythms are fabulously executed (Neil Wogensen’s mourning bass line, in particular, stands out). Instead, like Big Thief’s and Angel Olsen’s grandest anthems, “Chasing the Muse” commences delicately before slowly growing and growing into a titanic, breathtaking rocker. Carol’s voice flows like the Colorado River – sometimes smooth and easy and other times raging like Grade 5 rapids. Her lyrics again are poignant, as she tells her and a companion’s story of navigating through life’s many dead ends.
“Got what I paid for,
I was chasing the muse.
You’re gonna get what you paid for.
It’s time you walked away from me.
It’s time to choose.”
The third in the holy trinity is the emotional roller coaster “Ride”. Musically, it resonates of My Morning Jacket’s early, slow-building rockers (see “The Way That He Sings” and “I Will Sing You Songs”). The final guitar jam, for instance, is Jim James- and Carl Broemel-esque, where the Morones and Carol impersonate the broad-haired guitar gods. Before this, however, is Carol again glowing under the spotlight. Her voice takes on an extra layer of emotion and booms with knee-buckling force, especially when she screams out, “You gotta let me ride”, one last time.
The second half of the album takes on a similar tone – rollicking numbers and heart-pulling ballads. A ’70s folk-rock vibe percolates on “Bedroom”. Autumn-like touches a la Fleetwood Mac filter throughout, which offer the perfect canvas to this song about chasing dreams. A similar calming atmosphere is established on “Carolina”. This tune, however, is made for these summer days, as Wogensen and Doot’s accelerating rhythms are akin to starter’s gun of a race. This competition features a field of one, though, and she’s a valley queen looking to get on the road and start a new life.
Valley Queen deliver another soaring number in “Boiling Water”. At just 123 seconds, the quartet deliver a blazing and jubilant track. The guitars sear, the rhythms are extremely groovy, and Carol’s vocals explode over everything. Despite the furious and anthemic tone, her words denote the opposite – that of the maddening chaos that buzzes inside one’s body and mind that gathers heat. Eventually, a fire breaks out or the feeling of being burned by boiling water overwhelms us.
“Fight in my own ugliness.
You fight him all your pain
When he died you cursed him to an
Now fire, fire helped your mind
It’s burning down your place.”
The tender “Gems and Rubies” is stunning at its floor and incredibly engrossing at its ceiling. Although the song is the band’s most stripped-back and minimalist number, the simplicity yields something powerful and displays the foursome’s immense gifts. It’s the type of tune that when played in an arena or bar everyone goes quiet. The dissonant guitar, the weeping rhythms, and Carol’s sweeping vocals are what grab hold, as do the socially-charged lyrics. Words that are about everyone and anyone who has to struggle to make ends meet and get through each day.
“Will I sing to condemn the present times
Like souls still fighting for their lives?”
The album ends on a gorgeously solemn note with “Highway Pearls”. It sounds like what Fleetwood Mac would have created if they spent their entire careers in Laurel Canyon. Blissful and full of grace as well as regret, Carol wishes for a second chance and to make up for past mistakes. As the song swells to its light yet beautiful finale, it becomes apparent that Supergiant is a rarity in today’s soundbite world – one that captivates from the start to the finish. A record that requires listening to in its entirety and repeating it on numerous occasion. An album that will be remembered years if not decades from now as a transcendent piece of emotional indie rock.
Supergiant is out now via Roll Call Records, and it is also available on Bandcamp. Valley Queen are Natalie Carol (lead vocals/rhythm guitar), Neil Wogensen (bass/vocals), Shawn Morones (guitar/vocals), and Gerry Doot (drums). They are currently on tour, which includes a stop at Pickathon. Dates and information are here.
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