When singer-songwriter Jeff Larson premiered his album Heart of the Valley in 2009, the album was rightly lauded as an immaculately produced collection of laid-back, polished pop. It conjured a time when rich emotions and real instruments ruled pop radio. Today, it’s just as relevant, as proven by a newly-expanded reissue on Japan’s Vivid Sound label (VSCD 3944, 2016). The artist indicates in his new liner notes that “the concept for Heart of the Valley was loosely based on the Nilsson Sings Newman album from 1970 – that is, one singer/songwriter approaching another singer/songwriter’s body of work.” From that sublime touchstone on which Harry met Randy, Larson interpreted the songs of his frequent collaborator, America’s Gerry Beckley. The pair crafted a beautiful, bucolic journey that may be rooted in the San Fernando Valley but is, in fact, much further-reaching.
Vivid Sound’s reissue of Heart of the Valley features songs that will remain with you, and thanks to its fine remastering, they all sound as fresh as if they were recorded today. Beckley produced, engineered, arranged, and supplied background vocals (as well as the lead on one track) for the album, and also played a variety of instruments. Larson’s expressive voice can naturally recall Beckley’s at times, making for a sweet and almost brotherly blend when they join together.
The liltingly melodic Heart of the Valley unfolds like a film anthology, with the opening title track as a richly evocative, perfect introduction to these SoCal-themed tales of love and travel. Beckley’s voice is introduced as a backing vocalist on “Heart,” while Jeff Foskett supplies the song’s striking falsetto outro. Naturally, there are dashes of the familiar America sound throughout, whether a touch of “Lonely People” on the title track, or a pinch of “Sister Golden Hair” on the shimmering, uptempo “Sudden Soldier.” Vocals and guitars cascade on the latter, written from the perspective of one who “lives in airports/So I’ve seen all sorts/I see them come and go/They’re wearing camo/Their faces aglow/They’re heading off I know…”
The sounds of Heart are often as diverse as the stories. The chiming rocker “Minus Marci” by Larson, Beckley and Bill Mumy is catchy jangle-pop by way of America, while the yearningly tender “Calling” is a quintessentially Beckley love song, brought to life by Larson’s poignant lead and the crisp arrangement; in another era, it would have been an AM radio smash. The same goes for the sparkling, upbeat pair of “One Way Ticket” and “Southern Girl,” portraits of a man beguiled by a love that might have been. America’s Dewey Bunnell even chimes in on background vocals on the latter.
“Five Mile Road” conjures a wistful mood, and the effortlessly melodic “Wishing Well” offers sweetness and an open heart. The piano-driven ballad “Two People at Once,” co-written by Larson and Beckley, features some of their most impressive vocals. The pair also co-wrote the heartfelt closing track, “One Lit Window,” which features Nick Lane’s euphonium for added instrumental color.
Five bonus tracks have been appended to this new edition including two outtakes which fit seamlessly into the spirit and feeling of the original album. Beckley and Larson’s co-written “Once a Day” again addresses the past and one’s abilities to cope with it, and has a fantastic Byrds-ian quality. Beckley’s “Why I Lost You” is a slice of impeccably-crafted melancholy. An acoustic version of “Southern Girl” adds a rootsy feel to the song, and the extended version of “Airport Smiles” presents the Larson-penned full song, which was excerpted as connective tissue on the original album. Finally, the soaring bridge vocals (a little under a minute) on “Two People” are isolated to great effect.
Exuding breeziness, hope, and buoyancy, you’ll want to venture a trip into Jeff Larson’s Heart of the Valley on this new reissue (which makes an ideal companion to the release earlier this year of The Best of Jeff Larson). Driving the 405 was never this much fun!