In The Valley Below

In this age of infinite content and obliterated attention spans, you simply cannot underestimate the value of a killer opening line. And the one that introduced In The Valley Below’s 2013 single, “Peaches,” didn’t just grab you by the lapels, it dug its fingernails into the skin underneath. “I’ve been working on my knees, baby, it’s alright,” Angela Gail sighed over Jeffrey Jacob’s gritty, rust-covered guitar groove and church-organ hum, instantly thrusting you into a sweaty scene reeking of desperation, sacrifice and doing whatever it takes to survive. But as the song stepped away from the campfire and into the nightclub en route to its ecstatic, synth-pumped chorus, it became clear that, for In The Valley Below, hardship and passion are two sides of the same coin—and that romance is the only defense against a world gone mad. “We won’t live too long,” the two defiantly sang in unison, “so let’s love for one song.”

And for a moment there, that’s all In The Valley Below thought they had—that one shot to make it happen. Like so many musicians before them, Jeffrey (a Memphis native) and Angela (from Michigan) had moved to L.A. with the hopes of making it in the music biz. And after releasing “Peaches,” it seemed like that dream would have to remain just that—because, at the time, the couple were more preoccupied with another release: the arrival of their first child.

But if “Peaches” was a pledge to love for just one fleeting song, it was a love that refused to die. Just when Jeffrey and Angela had made the difficult decision to prioritize family over pursuing fame, the offers started trickling in. A record deal with Capitol Records. Invitations to perform on Letterman and Conan. Remixes by Bloc Party’s Kele Okerke and Passion Pit. Tours with White Lies and the Cold War Kids, and festival dates at Austin City Limits. As late as 2016, a good three years after the song was first released, “Peaches” was still creeping up the Top 40 on the Billboard Alternative Songs Chart. But in the thick of fulfilling all their fantasies, Jeffrey and Angela opted to build a new reality for themselves, in a place far away from the beaches and palm trees.

“We were living in Los Angeles, which is where we started the band,” Jeffrey recounts. “But we were touring so much, it was just getting too crazy and we felt like we needed a little more breathing room when we came off the road. So we moved to Grand Rapids—Angela’s from this area, and we have family around to help us out.”

According to the rock ‘n’ roll rulebook, domesticity is supposed to represent a death knell. But for In The Valley Below, it brought a renewed sense of freedom—thanks to the studio they built in their home.

“It’s cold here,” Angela says, “so it forced us to go down to our basement to work on music. We don’t have to drive anywhere; we can record whenever we want and be as loud as we want. And we can do it in our underwear.”

The resultant album puts lie to our preconceived notions of how environment influences music. There’s a tendency to conflate an artist’s sound with their surrounding geography—be it the sun-dappled serenity of ‘70s Laurel Canyon folk-rock or the industrial pallor of Manchester post-punk. But In the Valley Below’s second album, The Pink Chateau, is proof you can make sexy, urbane, tropical pop music in a Michigan basement in the dead of winter. When the duo invite you to “drink champagne in the pink chateau” on the album’s seductively funky title track, the message is clear: paradise is wherever you want it to be.

“The process was actually pretty similar to how we made our first record in L.A.,” Jeffrey observes. “We’ve always written, recorded, and produced everything ourselves.” With the exception of the opening track “Rise” for which they brought on Dave Sitek of TV on The Radio as producer.

Adds Angela, “Probably the biggest difference is we wrote the last album without playing any of the songs live first—but then we toured and realized what types of songs translate best in front of a crowd. Now, when we write songs, we have to think of how they’ll go over live.”

But if the expansive, festival-ready sound of The Pink Chateau betrays a desire to connect with the back rows, lyrically, In The Valley Below are still dealing in unflinching intimacies. Amid the splendorous synths, stuttering drums, and arena-rock shredding of “Hold on Tight,” Angela and Jeffrey serenade their young son, but eschew saccharine platitudes to dispense tough-love truths about the cruel world he’ll eventually inherit. “Break Even,” meanwhile, is a vivid, despairing portrait of a long-term relationship at the crossroads, the tension in the room amplified by the song’s jittery West African groove and austere ambient soundscape. And though the duo romp through the hand-clapped, electro-glam stomp of “Blue Sky Drugs” like a future-shocked Fleetwood Mac, the song’s sweet, soaring chorus is laced with a bitter sentiment.

“We have our ups and downs, of course,” Angela says of her relationship with Jeffrey. “‘Blue Sky Drugs’ is our attempt at a happy song, inspired by the classic country duets, still the lyrics still get sad, we can’t help it.”

But despite the insular nature of both the album’s lyrics and recording process, the indignities and anxieties of the outside world couldn’t help but creep into the recordings. The strobe-lit synth pop of “Desperate Dance” reimagines “Welcome to the Jungle” as if it were written by New Order, its strip-club scenery providing the seedy, red-light backdrop to a tale of lost souls trying to survive in the big city. And then there’s the new-wave gospel banger “Bloodhands,” a meditation on race relations in America that reverberates with the aftershocks of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri: “We were shaking bloodhands,” the duo sing ominously, “when we promised we were brothers.”

“It’s a challenge to write a song like that,” Angela admits. “We don’t want to be preachy, because we don’t have all the answers. All we can do is say something from our perspective. Bring awareness. Some change has come but then so often we lose all this momentum—we are trying to be blood brothers. Our blood is the same. It’s infuriating, and painful to see people treated differently because of their skin color.”

By Jeffrey and Angela’s own admission, The Pink Chateau wasn’t designed to be a unified statement; it was simply a pared-down selection of the 20-odd songs they had concocted at their home studio over the past few years in between tours and diaper changes. But as the individual parts locked into place, the songs started to feel more of a piece—so much so that the duo delayed the album’s originally scheduled release date in the fall of 2018 to finish work on a companion film that visually unifies the album’s disparate themes.

Written and co-directed by Angela, the movie was filmed in and around a palatial estate in rural Michigan. The Pink Chateau film is a dreamlike diorama of interconnected musical vignettes inspired by vintage French erotica and the faded colors of 1970s films. Each song on the record serves as a portal through which the film’s enigmatic female protagonist confronts her most deep-seated desires. “It’s a story of sexual discovery and freedom from taboo,” Angela explains. “It’s a fantasy of an inviting place where female sexuality is a beautiful curiosity and not a shameful secret—free from the story of the woman being a slut or victim if she is sexual.”

But more than just chart one woman’s journey of self-empowerment, the film is a celebration—of same-sex love, of consensual sexual exploration, of interracial intimacy, of all body types. Even in their darkest moments, the songs on The Pink Chateau are yearning for a better, more progressive world. Through Angela’s film, we get a glimpse of what that might look like.