I am not sure how or when there developed music that innately sounds “American” but it happened. And if the composer Aaron Copeland didn’t himself invent the sound he surely perfected it. Note that this has little if anything to do with the genre of music that has been called Americana; in fact, I believe the only songwriter in the rock’n’roll world who has tapped into that quintessential American-music vein with regularity and brilliance has been Randy Newman (see “Louisiana 1927,” see “Dixie Flyer,” see “My Country,” et al). “Peace in the Valley” immediately aligns itself with this sound; the opening melody and chord progression all but force images of prairies and big skies and dusky campfires into your brain. A cumulative sense of homespun gospel adds to the pioneer sensibility.
Where “Peace in the Valley” veers from this archetypal sound is in the details, which register as somewhere between subtly disheveled and overtly unhinged. Orchestral instruments play (sometimes squeak, as per 1:10), but with ramshackle discipline. You kind of wait for the whole thing to unravel, but it doesn’t. This adds to the power. The vocals, when they come, via Alex Jacob (who does musical business as Therapies Son) and Ella Hatamian, are whispery-fragile (him) and sturdy but plain-spoken (her). Soon they are backed by a swelling choir, in which context Jacob suddenly begins to sound—intentionally or not—a bit like Randy Newman himself. After one verse and one visit to the chorus, the instrumental ensemble reasserts control, takes the rhythm up a notch, and culminates in a violin solo that out-ass-kicks most electric guitar solos in our electric-guitar-deprived day and age. All in all I’m not exactly sure what I just sat through but I enjoyed it.
The larger context is unhelpful. Cliff Dweller has been identified in its press material as a “sonic and visual project” by an LA-based artist named Ari Balouzian, himself a classically-trained violist and composer, as well as a film scorer. He is also (there’s more?) a seventh-generation master shoemaker, working for the Burbank-based company Cydwoq, founded by his father. Cliff Dweller, as an art project, has something to do with Cydwoq but at this point—a personal short-coming, I’ll confess—my intellectual eyes glaze over. I remain unconvinced by projects with aims both large-scale and obscure, and have not as yet mustered the musical patience to listen to the 19 mostly instrumental songs that comprise Emerald City, the album on which you’ll find “Peace in the Valley.” Feel free to sample the whole thing yourself, however, via Bandcamp; your mileage may very well vary.