The unwieldy title of Quiet In The Valley… is a reflection of its jerry-rigged background: The album is assembled from three limited-edition, largely acoustic EPs (Quiet, In The Valley, On The Shores, The End Begins) released by former Sparta frontman and At The Drive-In guitarist Jim Ward between 2007 and 2011. Six of those tracks are duplicated in electric form on what has now ballooned into a generous 20-track package.
The result adds up to a fine record in its own right, but it’s also an engaging, intimate portrait of the songwriting process — a reminder that any song on any record is only one of infinitely possible versions of itself. In its acoustic form, “Coastlines” is a languid, reggae-tinged shuffle evoking the Chris Isaak of Baja Sessions. Electric, it’s a pulsing stomper recalling the deadpan furies of Okkervil River. The acoustic “My Town,” meanwhile, is a wordy folk throwback to Phil Ochs and Fred Neil, while its plugged-in incarnation reaches hailing distance of the bar-rattling rock of the Gaslight Anthem.
That the conceit works so beautifully only underlines the fundamental strength of Ward’s songwriting. He has a knack for the understated-but-insidious melody; his lyrics pierce cleverly but never outsmart themselves; and his voice has a range spanning from the Elliot Smith-like whisper of “Mystery Talks” to the Thom Yorke-ish keen that lights up “Broken Songs.” If Ward was attempting to prove that his songs sound as good stripped bare as dressed up, he may consider his case made.