Review of Valorie Miller’s Turtle Shell, with a CD-release Thursday at BoBo

Critically acclaimed North Carolina singer-songwriter and guitarist Valorie Miller recorded her new CD, Turtle Shell, in just 10 hours of studio time at Asheville’s Echo Mountain during sessions for her project as well as for fellow singer-songwriter Rupert Wates

, who traveled from New York City to record his new album, At the Losers’ Motel, there with vocal support from Miller. Along with her vocal and guitar work, Turtle Shell features Mike Holstein on upright bass, Will Straughan on dobro and backing vocals, Justin Ray on trumpet (track 4) and Rupert Wates on piano (track 9). It is self-produced and was engineered at Echo Mountain by Chris Medrano.

Buy it at CDBaby

The record is one of Miller’s strongest efforts, every track featuring her distinctive and expressive voice, expert guitar work and originality — always with a flavor that has branded her, as a reviewer at No Depression put it, “pure Carolina from whisper to wail.” But she’s known far outside of the state, having gained national recognition and sharing the stage with such artists as Merle Haggard and Leon Russell. Lucinda Williams and Tony Arata (writer of multiple hits for Garth Brooks, among others) have praised her songwriting. Some say her sound is reminiscent of artists such as Patsy Cline and Billie Holiday, but these are influences. Miller’s work is strikingly original, and Turtle Shell is a case in point.

The album opens with “My Acre”, a song with stunning acoustic bass and engaging motion. It exudes hopefulness, curiosity and sweetness as it contrasts fear with joy, comfort with discomfort in the life and place one makes for one’s self. The song conveys great meaning in life, in dreaming about escaping one’s boundaries but feeling self-doubt and the fear of not finding forgiveness for the past. And any artist can relate to the lyric’s conveyance of digging in deep to live the life of an artist — by unwavering choice.

The title track, Turtle Shell, features excellent dobro work and vocal harmonies. One sees a turtle crossing the road not knowing the dangers of being there. The lyric explores the challenges of change, aging, and seeking redemption and forgiveness exposed out in the world versus the desire to retreat to a place of safety, like a turtle shell, although the safety may be an illusion: “Should I pray for heaven instead of hell, or just a big turtle shell?”

With great guitar picking, “Peaches Ahead” is an upbeat tune conveying the Southern country experience of passing roadside signs advertising produce stands in the summer and looking forward to the peaches ahead. It seems to be a metaphor for a belief that good things are ahead, but the optimism is tempered with realism and the understanding that summers — and life — are fleeting. It brings to mind the lyric of Billie Holiday’s recording of “Speak Low” by Ogden Nash and Kurt Weill, in which Holiday sings “Speak low when you speak love. Our summer day withers away too soon, too soon.”

“Alcohol and Elephants” delivers the pleasant surprise of Justin Ray’s trumpet, and it contains visionary lyrics that take the listener to the experience of ghosts in a glasses of alcohol (perhaps memories of loves past that return with drink and solitude) and elephants in rooms. It reflects on human relationships and avoidance or even self-deception in the interest of keeping a love alive. “A blind eye is turned and an ether flower blooms, alcohol and elephants in the room. The heart of a good man is tested when it’s in the hands of a woman who’s a bigger bite than he can chew.”

Also very visual, “Haunted Hand” to speaks to desire for lasting love, a lasting touch and a fleeting opportunity to connect with an unexpected stranger who blows into a town that beforehand seemed empty. The opening line: “Met you in a ghost town tumbling like a weed, I don’t know if you want me, but you surely haunt me.” It also creatively compares the two characters of the song and a passing chance. “I am Carolina, you are Tennessee. You are a spider, and I’m a bumblebee … You better hurry up and get me, for I’m sure you’ll agree — time ain’t nothing but a miser and endings come for free.”

“American Women” is a witty take on a serious subject — the big-dollar ad campaigns and pop culture that make women fail to recognize their natural beauty and spend fortunes on trying to change their looks, supposedly for the better. But by whose definition? This is a protest song. “The bodies of American women are a country that’s been occupied. From bushes to eyelashes, everything gets modified,” Miller sings, concluding later in the tune that there’s nothing that needs modification. “And love is our final rebellion, intelligence our best tool. American women come home to yourselves in a mirror that’s always half-full.”

The next track, “Snowflakes,” moves to a jazzy feel with Mike Holstein’s fabulous bass playing and Miller’s expressive vocals and versatile performance skills. It’s another takes-you-there song about the spirit and movement of snow, how it falls on the evergreens as one sits by a warm fire inside and watches through the window.

“Drunken Tattoo” is country by definition — real country in the same sense that Hank Williams was. It’s about regretting a past relationship, but being hopeful about one day forgetting. It features a great guitar solo enhanced by dobro and contains a line that sums up the how long it can take to forget: “Time flies on a busted wing.”

A perfect conclusion to the album is the final track, “Some Other Sky,” a contemplative piece (with an unusual and imaginative piano part performed by Rupert Wates) that asks “Did the day live up to the dream? Did the sun promise to rise, then hand you some dark alibi and light up some other sky?”

Well, maybe it lit up another sky in the song’s story, but not on the album. This one lives up to the dreams of anyone seeking a sophisticated, original and distinctively Southern album — but not by the garden-variety definition of the region. Valorie Miller is an example of what listeners can find in the real South if they look carefully off the beaten path and listen.

For more information and to listen to sample tracks from the album (available for purchase now on CDBaby

) visit http://www.valoriemiller.com.

Miller will officially release Turtle Shell at a 9 p.m. live performance July 12 at BoBo Gallery

at 22 Lexington Ave. in downtown Asheville. Guest musicians at the event will include Will Straughan, Mike Holstein, Justin Ray and Moses Atwood.

[Editor’s note: This review originally appeared on Dave Turner’s blog. Read more at http://daveturnermusic.com/blog.]

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