Over the last 20 years, Jersey City-based singer-songwriter Val Emmich has always found a way to share his music, whether through small indie labels, a brief flirtation with a major, or even crowdfunding from fans. For Starburst, his 13th full-length (being released on Aug. 26), he went the DIY route, enlisting friend and neighbor Scott Garapolo to play drums and doing everything else himself, from providing all the instruments and vocals down to the final mix.
You’d never know. Emmich has recorded by himself before, but Starburst not only represents a significant step up, it ranks among his best releases. It’s hard to choose a favorite from a discography that already includes a dozen albums, five EPs, 14 singles and two compilations, including the career-spanning, 60-track Posthaste.
On Starburst, longtime fans will recognize Emmich’s penchant for emotive vocals, acoustic Americana tropes and zingy electric indie rock, and the way he’ll whisper a verse and then erupt into a full-throated chorus. But even listeners who have followed his career closely since 2003’s breakout debut Slow Down Kid will hear things on Starburst they’ve never heard before.
After a short instrumental intro, “Bad Vibrations” (note the wordplay on the Beach Boys classic, a recurring motif) gets the album off to a jaunty start, Emmich pontificating on the bad vibes of our divisive political climate over a forceful, motorik beat. “I don’t know what you’re saying, you don’t know what I’m saying … this nowhere conversation is causing bad vibrations,” he complains over stinging electric guitar.
A strummed acoustic guitar introduces “Never No” (punning “you never know”), which, like many of these songs, works like a short story. The lyrics concern a guy about to propose marriage, probably too soon but going for it anyway. “You never know till you up and you just let go,” Emmich counsels in a soaring chorus, punctuated by a delightful whoop.
Bouncy indie-rock electric guitars and a jaunty “la da di da” intros “It Only Hurts If You Let It Hurt,” a woe-is-me rocker with a head-bobbing melody and a sizzling electric guitar solo.
Emmich channels classic R.E.M. with the melodic “The Upside (Down),” with another bit of whimsical wordplay (“looking on the upside … down”) and lovely, layered harmony vocals. The pensive, laconic “What the Hell” takes another jaundiced view of our modern world as drums, piano and fulsome organ fills back Emmich’s world-weary refrain of “nobody knows what the hell they’re doing.”
“Hold on to what you know is true,” he sighs, “the rest of it is of no use to you.”
On a vinyl album, this is where you’d flip it over to Side Two, as “Shine” picks up the tempo with a percolating dance rhythm. While the song’s singer suffers from ennui and confusion, it celebrates the infinite opportunities we have to do better and do good. “Eagle Eye” offers more advice to a confused and troubled protagonist, the chorus taking flight with a beautiful melody that communicates hope even as the song warns of dark times. “It’s getting kind of lonely always being right, maybe make some room for a little surprise,” sings Emmich.
A heavily reverbed vocal takes us through the broken-hearted “Leave.”
The six minute-plus “Have at It” closes the album with orchestral sweep, the percussion beating like a pulse, odd-sounding string instruments strummed under a swelling organ, and Emmich’s falsetto vocal harmonizing with itself. “It’s time to put all your hurt away,” he sings, “it won’t be far if you need it someday.” The song then segues into an extended fadeout with a symphony of otherworldly sounds and vocals, until it comes to an abrupt stop.
Emmich recently said in an interview that Starbust represented his attempt to remember what it felt like to have fun making music. He succeeded in creating songs that reverberate with original sounds, arrangements and lyrical bon mots, however cautionary and troubled. That sounds like fun to me.
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