Justin Rutledge understands the power of the pause. On his reflective new album Valleyheart (out today on Outside Music), the Ontario singer-songwriter lets the spaces amidst the notes and the atmosphere between the words speak for themselves. The result is an elegant and understated album.
Valleyheart, Rutledge's fifth studio album, comes after a stretch of almost three years since his last release. During that stretch the former English major, who had previously collaborated with Michael Ondaatje on a stage adaption of one of his novels, became further immersed in the world of theatre, acting as composer and musical director with the Canadian Stage Company. Rutledge brings some of that darkened stage with him onto Valleyheart, in the characters that spring to life in his songs and in the dramatic tension wrought by the precise pacing.
A quietly melodic collection of spacious songs, Valleyheart unfolds with calm deliberation. Unrushed, uncluttered, the album has a clarity that allows you to hear every note. From the slow dark guitar twang, to the subdued sob of harmonica, to the sparse punctuation of keyboards, the restrained instrumentation forces you to stop and listen to Rutledge's understated lyrics. The album opener and lead single, “Amen America”, is a tentatively hopeful lullaby, while “Downtown” has the confessional feel of a young musician uncertain of his future. On the sultry sway of “Kapuskasing Coffee”, he turns what should be a clunky phrase into a sweetly lazy yearning for mornings past.
As always, Rutledge's voice is by far his most powerful instrument. Pure and clear, with a distinct vibrato, his is a voice of almost unnatural beauty. On Valleyheart, Rutledge's voice takes its rightful place at centre stage and draws you into the tender intimacy of his songs.
Touring western Canada during February, dates include a February 23 stop at the Calgary Folk Music Festival's newly opened Festival Hall.