For fans of Margo Cilker’s splendid 2021 debut Pohoryville there’s good news. The follow-up to that album, Valley of Heart’s Delight, offers eleven more songs in the same rich musical vein.
Acoustic guitar, bass and drums are joined most prominently, as before, by piano, with generous splashes of organ and accordion (all three instruments are played by the Decembrists’ Jenny Conlee-Drizos). Add to this some horns, here and there, a little pedal steel, and a sprinkling of fiddle, plus gorgeous harmonies – provided in part by sister Sara Cilker.
The resulting sound is familiar; it sits comfortably within that sprawling genre of Americana, but it doesn’t sound quite like anyone else. On this album, a few songs lean towards the more country end of things, assisted by the pedal steel, while the accordion provides the odd nod towards Cajun.
There’s a preoccupation, in these songs, with travel, with moving and seeking, but it’s not always clear what’s being sought. She’s ‘looking for a lowland trail’, as the first song has it, but to where?
One answer to that question is California, and specifically, the Santa Clara Valley, where Cilker grew up. It’s ‘a place I have roots,’ she has written, ‘but don’t always feel like I belong’. Once, that place was known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight, alluded to in the album’s title. Now, it’s Silicon Valley.
That’s the tension at play in several of these songs. It’s restlessness and homesickness, it’s longing for a place that isn’t there anymore. ‘I don’t know where my home is,’ she sings in ‘I Remember Carolina’, a rollocking road trip of a song that criss-crosses the United States. ‘I remember being free.’
Cilker’s voice has a certain vulnerability to it. She can do the slur and twang of country, but never takes it too far. There’s a compelling hint of unsteadiness, and the sense, sometimes, that she’s holding back, that there’s more she can do. You hear it in the last third of ‘With the Middle’, when she reaches for a higher note, and finds it, and all of a sudden the song – one of the strongest tracks here – truly begins to shine.
The raw vulnerability of the vocals are reflected in the production, by Sera Cahoone (who also plays drums on the album). Cilker is an artist whose songs could be squashed by a heavy-handed producer, eager for more obvious radio appeal. But Cahoone gets it just right. She allows for fresh air, and for a looseness that makes everything feel more alive. Margo Cilker is an enormously talented and persuasive singer-songwriter, and Valley of Heart’s Delight will convince many more listeners of that fact.