Album Review :
The Oh Hellos - Through the Deep, Dark Valley

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Artist: The Oh Hellos
Title: Through the Deep, Dark Valley
Label: None
Release Date: 10/30/12
Reviewer: Josh Hamm

Tracklisting:

  1. The Valley
  2. Like the Dawn
  3. Eat You Alive
  4. Second Child, Restless Child
  5. Wishing Well
  6. In Memoriam
  7. The Lament of Eustace Scrubb
  8. I Was Wrong
  9. I Have Made Mistakes
  10. The Truth Is a Cave
  11. Valley(Reprise)

Once again, two of my favourite things in music collide: folk and concept albums. The Oh Hellos, a band made up of siblings Maggie and Tyler Heath (with a little help from some friends) say that this is a “self-contained concept album, and so for best results should be listened to in its entirety, in chronological order, in one sitting.” As someone who firmly believes that all those hit single songs get lonely and wish they had an album to comfort them, I love it when a band writes an album that is purposefully meant to be enjoyed straight through.

It’s more of a thematically conceptual album rather than an extremely detailed narrative. There are underlying references to God, faith, and I found that the poetry in the lyrics was hymnal, or even psalm like at times, if far less overtly theological than most. It’s the story of a child (perhaps two), growing up and seeking for meaning but is bogged down by their own failures and shortcomings. There are biblical themes and Christian imagery lurking in every song, touching on complex issues of the faith, while at the same time the whole album is vague and ambiguous, but beautifully so.

The first lyrics of “The Valley” set the dark lyrical tones: “We were born in the valley of the dead and the wicked/…we were born in the shadow of the crimes of our fathers /blood was our inheritance,” but it ends with a hopeful direction, as the voice cries out “we were young when we heard you call our names in the silence/…we came down to the water and we begged for forgiveness/…will you lead me?” These are heavy themes, but they are never weighed down by despair or wallow in hopelessness. Even desolate songs which cry out in anguish contain a certain feel in the music which allows hope and joy to be found, even in the darkness.

The second song, “Like the Dawn,” is a heart breaking rendition of the creation of Eve from Adam’s perspective, yet sung by Maggie, not Tyler.  Poignant lyrics such reflect Adam’s joy, “bones of my bones and flesh of my flesh, at last,” and his regret: “and you will surely be the death of me/ but how could I have known?”  Then comes “Eat Me Alive,” which is maddeningly short at under two minutes, but features a great gang chorus, and great lyrics: “I’ve seen the true face of the things you call Life /the voice of the siren that holds your desires /but Death, she is cunning, and clever as hell /and she’ll eat you alive.”  It’s one of the most eclectic and interesting songs musically.

I could go on with virtually every song about how amazing the lyrics are, or how the band manages to tap into that “Mumford and Sons” style of folk-rock yet have their own panache, but what truly sold me on this album was the voice of Maggie Heath. To be sure, Tyler’s voice is one of those great rough folk voices, and their harmonies are brilliant, but her haunting vocals, coarse yet clear, are what transcend the album from another indie folk release to a great work of art in an oversaturated field.

Another thing I love about this album is how every song has a self contained story that works without the rest of the album, although it adds depth as a part of it. “Wishing Well” is one of my favourites, a prodigal son story:

oh, I stole from my father all I thought I could sell /tossed his copper, and I watched as it fell /but there wasn’t any water in the wishing well.

“For my soul, he made an offer /and to the dust again I fell /and oh, that devil’s got a hold on me now / because there wasn’t any water in the wishing well.”

There are so many flaws in the character, but they are recognized as short comings. I think that the central theme of the album is found in “I Have Made Mistakes.”  A simple piano and guitar intro with Tyler’s quiet voice speaks of the lessons learned in doubts. Soft backing vocals join in at the chorus, and the song slowly builds, delivering line after line of profound lyrics and a simplistically gorgeous organic sound. Because I can’t truly do the song justice by describing it to you, here are what I found to be the central lyrics:

“And the sun, it does not cause us to grow/it is the rain that will strengthen your soul/and it will make you whole

“We have lived in fear, and our fear has betrayed us/but we will overcome the apathy that has made us/because we are not alone in the dark with our demons/and we have made mistakes/but we’ve learned from them”

Through the Deep, Dark Valley ends, appropriately, with a reprise of the opening song “The Valley.” Much to my delight, they approached it in a similar manner to ElisaRay’s album All Creatures, where it echoes the first song musically and lyrically, yet differs enough to show the progress made in the album.

“We were born in the valley of the dead and the wicked /where our father’s father fell to the crimes he’d committed /we were young when we heard you call our names in the silence

“Still you lead me, never leave me / never leave me”

Overall: This is one of the most joyful albums I’ve heard. Every song is filled with the vibrancy of life. Beautiful harmonies layered over simple folk accompaniment, with poetic conceptual lyrics underneath. There are few who could match The Oh Hellos for passionately creating music which instantly connects and draws the listener in. Through the Deep, Dark Valley is one of the most simply beautiful albums I’ve heard all year.

RIYL: The Last Bison, Mumford and Sons, The Civil Wars, ElisaRay, The Head and the Heart

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