“Songs can be powerful tools…like weapons,” muses New Jersey singer-songwriter Val Emmich. “In the past, the weapons of choice for warfare were swords, spears, even longbows – things that could do damage from a distance. Knives and daggers were for more intimate occasions.” You might find this talk of weaponry perplexing coming from an artist discussing the significance of his new album’s title. Then again, if you’re familiar with Emmich and his work, you know there’s often meaning lurking beneath the surface. “With knives and daggers,” he adds, “you had to figure out how to get close enough to use them.” On LITTLE DAGGERS, Val Emmich’s sixth release, he manages to do just that, drawing listeners close with great pop melodies and playful arrangements while a penetrating lyrical story unfolds underneath.
“Pop music is tricky because we’ve been trained not to expect much meaning in it. I love big melodies, but I also love songs with a strong, lasting message. The truly great songs somehow marry the two. Lennon was great at it. Marvin Gaye, Paul Westerberg, Burt Bacharach. They all wrote super catchy songs with lyrics that struck a nerve. Those songs make you want to dance but also make you think.”
The songs on LITTLE DAGGERS nimbly balance those two goals – they’re simple yet substantial, accessible yet challenging, introspective yet danceable. They also fit together to form a cohesive whole. LITTLE DAGGERS is a true album, centered around pop’s most enduring theme: love. Starting with a beguiling mixture of cynicism and hope on opening track “The Lucky Ones,” Emmich’s message remains clear throughout — love is never easy, but always worth it. On “Too Far” he sings about a relationship that has devolved into a grudge match of subtle digs and bruised feelings, but which can still be salvaged with patience and generosity. The album concludes with a new beginning on “Catalyst,” as Emmich realizes that sometimes the only way to fix something is to leave it behind and start fresh.
Emmich has staked out this territory before. His first release was an acoustic EP entitled The Fifteen Minute Relationship whose artwork read like a self-help book instructing the listener how to fall in and out of love in just fifteen minutes. Seven years later, Emmich takes a more nuanced approach. On LITTLE DAGGERS, the mystery and ambiguity of love are embraced and represented by the contrast between weighty lyrics and the infectious pop music that envelopes them. Handclaps, doo wop vocals, tambourines, trumpets and whistles make the songs sound light and playful even as the lyrics are often thick and sobering. For example, on “Hurt More Later” Emmich sings “It hurts now but it’ll hurt more later” over a joyful composition, complete with a choir. Throughout, the disconnect between music and lyrics proves both unsettling and addictive.
LITTLE DAGGERS is quite different from Emmich’s last studio album Sunlight Searchparty, which was recorded live with Emmich’s touring band. This time around, Emmich opted to produce and engineer the record himself and play a majority of the instruments. Joining him at intervals was longtime drummer Eric Micali, Jason Cupp as mixer and producer of two tracks, and a list of guest musicians including Blake Sennett of Rilo Kiley.
After releasing one record on a major label and then two on his own, Emmich now teams up with New York City indie label, Bluhammock Music. In addition to making music, Emmich has been quietly acting for nearly eight years, and has recently completed his first novel. “With a book, I get the freedom to expand on all these short stories that I’ve been writing in my songs,” Emmich explains. “As for the acting, it’s just another creative process that I really enjoy. I already sort of transform myself into someone else when I write and perform a song so it wasn’t a giant step to translate that into a performance on screen.” The New York Times summed it up this way: “Emmich has fully rediscovered himself artistically…. [It’s] shaping up to be a multiplatform reinvention.”
And what about that album title? “I wanted these songs to feel like daggers…like little pricks of feeling. At the same time, they’re just pop songs…they’re harmless. If you look at the cover photo you can see that they’re made out of paper.” These little daggers pierce the skin but as Emmich explains, they’re not quite weapons. They’re more like flirtatious invitations to dance. Or tiny mirrors forcing you to reflect. Or maybe they’re just songs inspiring your devotion. No matter how you define it, LITTLE DAGGERS feels like a celebration.