Jude Valentine is an indie singer-songwriter living at the Arizona-Mexico border in an old mining town called Bisbee. After performing around Arizona for over a decade, Valentine hit a rough patch in his songwriting: “I couldn't figure out how to write about how absurd and bombastic the world had become in a way that felt genuine.” Stuck inside during the pandemic, he became inspired to write and record most of the songs on Back to Babylon, which is available on CD or by download.
Valentine and drummer Raymond Alvarez recorded the basic tracks in a big open room using an old Tascam analog recorder and “whatever equipment was laying around the house. I decided to allow the music to be reflective of the angst and confusion of what was happening and allowed the instrumentation to match what the song meant within the narrative of the record.” Ranelle Mathews sings backup on a few tracks.
To address the elephant in the room: it’s an obvious comparison, but Valentine truly does sound like Bob Dylan, and in many ways: vocal timbre, songwriting style, harmonica, studio sound and even organ (plus the album cover too!). The fact that this music comes from a much younger man than Dylan (his beard doesn’t fool me) is quite intriguing. As a Dylan fan I was comfortable with Valentine’s songs from the very first tune, “Waterloo,” which features a knowing, sly vocal with ringing guitars and Al Kooper-ish organ. The recording space feels HUGE with a wall of sound created more by natural reverb than overdubs. Using headphones, the stereo image seems to stretch way beyond one’s ears.
“J. Robert Oppenheimer Blues” (quite a Dylanesque title!) slows things down for a spacey, almost spoken lament. “I could maybe love her / if it wasn’t for truth / This love is just a firing squad / Assigned for me to shoot.” It’s dramatic and intriguing with a luminous cloud of trilling high notes at the conclusion. “Relative Term” starts with a really nice bass and drum arrangement but then has Valentine’s vocals competing with overly loud and under-tuned guitars. “Baroness of New Babylon” returns us to solid ground with a fast-paced folk rock tune featuring ghostly organ and ethereal background vocals. The title track “Back To Babylon” is one of the best, an earnest and insistent narrative featuring some of the nicest chorus vocals.
“Cities of Fire” takes a Johnny Cash rockabilly detour with a chugging train beat borrowed from “Ring Of Fire.” Love the twangy Fender-style guitars here. “Rebuilding Babylon” completes the “Babylon Trilogy” (unless you count the next song, which also mentions Babylon) for a slower, folkier narrative with spare instrumentation. “Draftee Jubilee” is a fun roots-rock rave up. “Cutting Epitaphs” is a more intimate performance centered on gentle guitar picking and vocals. “The ship is going down and they’re shooting off the flares / Even though they know that no one’s there / I’m laughing at the bow and drinking it straight / You know it’s finally something for which I don’t have to wait.” The final song “The Future Thine” has a majestic arrangement worthy of Blood On The Tracks.
All of the thirteen songs here are lyrics-heavy, which puts me at a disadvantage since Valentine didn’t provide a libretto. I caught some of the words, but many others are swallowed by Valentine’s idiosyncratic phrasing. That said, I really enjoyed most of the music and the arrangements, and will be interested to see where Valentine goes from here.
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