By | May 10, 2022

Valorie Miller – Only The Killer Would Know

Blackbird Records

2022

Born in Asheville, North Carolina, Only the Killer Would Know is Valorie Miller’s first release since 2017’s Hard Rain. The album was produced by Kayla Zuskin, who also plays organ, bass and electric, rhythm and slide guitar. It addresses her discovery that the acre of land she bought in Swannanoa was adjacent to a government overseen hazardous waste area, a highly toxic superfund site created by a company called Chemtronics that manufactured weaponry and explosives, which, although unaware at the time, led to health issues that forced her to leave the property.

Heavily involved in research into what happened, it’s a discovery she talks of in the appositely titled, simply strummed Apocalachia (“I didn’t know/Cause no one told/About all/The Agent Orange/In your water and soil”) where she expresses the hope that “When the men/Who left wars/To their children/Are gone/A whole new garden/You’ll grow”. That environmental theme and how we treat the earth continues with the equally stripped back Field of Flowers with the metaphor “Don’t cut your rose/For a bouquet/Leave the flowers in the ground” because “The wilder you grow/The stronger you stay”.

Borrowing the title phrase from the United States national anthem, in describing an apparent Garden of Eden that hides a darker truth, Home of the Brave, with its shuffle rhythm, cymbal rolls, slide, and choral background vocals, lyrically touches on Southern gothic in the lines “I’ve seen the shallow graves where they’re buried/Rusting in barrels in their cemetery/The secret I speak of, a burden to carry” as she pointedly declares “Dr Chemtronics is feeding you poison” and calls on a sense of indignation and justice to rise up against corporate greed and irresponsibility (“Once you realize you’ve been lied to/No prison can ever confine you/Billionaires can’t buy you/And the home of the brave is inside you”).

Set to a dusty Americana shuffle, Not For Nothin’ was written after, passing over a flooded river on the way to visit her ailing father, she found herself inexplicably bursting into tears, the resulting song speaking of empathy and extending concerns of environmental damage, be it through climate change (“the drought of the land”) or industrial pollution (“the homes of the poisoned in Flint, Michigan”) as she asks the river to “deliver every single tear I cry/To the crops of a farmer, to a bucket in a well/To the flames of a wildfire, rain them on hell”.

The spooked brushed drums and slide peppered swampy title track takes a familiar detective tale phrase, with the killer here being those responsible for knowingly dumping toxic waste, she the detective driven to expose their crimes (“It’s the same old players makin’ all the laws/I’m a tactical evader in full camouflage… Lately there’s a monster livin’ inside of me/All that I’ve been wantin’ is that remedy”) with information only they would possess.

Things take a different lyrical and musical direction with Orbit, watery otherworldly guitar, hypnotic bassline and echoey vocals in service of an immersive relationship number (“When you walk away, you try to walk straight/Out of the door and right into space/I put a curve into your path/Now when you go, I know you’ll be back”) drawing upon physics imagery (“You shine a light, I’ll make it bend/I’m looking through, you are the lens/There’s a black hole pulling us in/Getting back out was never the plan”). There’s a similar muted psych-rock musical mood too on Pearl Choker, with what sounds like eerie woodwind underscoring the enigmatic lyrics (“There ain’t enough cookies to hold my fortune/Don’t think that I don’t know/It’s a pearl choker, and I like to wear it/A little too tight on my throat”) and images of upheaval and disruption (“The devil is real, y’all, but he ain’t precise/With his buckshot and dull butcher knife/His rusty tractor plows up my life”) that seem to have a mental health undercurrent (“Backed into corners with no escape/Basements, bunkers, broken landscapes/One time a van came and took me away/I haven’t returned to this day”).

Relationship songs conclude the album, turning to more familiar country colours musically and lyrically with the jogging rhythm of Welcome To Lonesome (“For every flower you see out in the field/There’s a thousand you miss, just as real…Every mornin’ before it turns day/It seems like things might be OK/Till the night time swallows/The ground I stood upon”), but even here, Zuskin’s production and slide give it an off-kilter edge. 

She ends by returning to water imagery (“Your cistern is guarded, your reservoir deep”) for Your Own Well and its theme of deception (“Lips sweet as honey tell bitter lies/Smooth surface, devil’s disguise”) and troubling spirits  (“voices from the shadows, calling your name/Try to entice you into their shade/Wandering and thirsty, they come while you sleep”), ending with an obfuscated echo of the running leitmotif of those who contaminated Eden getting their just desserts as she sings “When the thunder collects the raindrops will fall/When the tempest begins the serpent will crawl/Down on his belly, exiled from bliss/We can be free from the sorrow of this” when the poisoned chalice is presented to “Drink water from your own well”.

Part ecopolitics-activism (a sort of musical equivalent to the film Dark Waters, which told the similar story of DuPont contaminating a town with unregulated chemicals), part-excursion into troubled relationships, it’s an at times swampy slow burner that progressively gets deeper inside you the more you play it.