Label: Concord Records
11 songs – 44 minutes
Valerie June has been attracting glowing reviews and expectant predictions in the UK for a while now. After self-releasing three “bootleg” albums, the release of Pushin’ Against A Stone on a major label may help the Tennessee native to go global.
Combining blues, gospel, soul and Appalachian folk, in a style that June herself describes as “organic moonshine roots music”, it is actually quite hard to categorise her music. It is very blues-based but consistently surprising and distinctly idiosyncratic.
On first listening, the most striking aspect is June’s distinctive, oddly affecting, reedy voice, which is part Billie Holliday, part Eartha Kitt, part Joan Osborne, and all Valerie June. It is a voice that combines passion with precision as she hits notes that are not immediately obvious for a vocal melody, but which after a few listens sound somehow inevitable. The arrangements are also fascinating, often featuring accompaniments that sound simple but which never quite end up where the listener expects.
The songs themselves, several of which were co-written with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys (who co-produced the album with Kevin Augunas), range from the folk of “Tennessee Time” and the strummed rock “Twined & Twisted”, to the funky groove of “Workin’ Woman Blues” and the electric blues work song of “You Can’t Be Told”. Acoustic instruments dominate the arrangements, and nearly all the songs feature haunting, ghostly harmonies, but nothing seems to go in the direction one might expect. On “Shotgun”, for example, the precision of the acoustic guitar is nicely contrasted with the primitive slide guitar, all played by June herself.
Influences abound, but June takes them and runs with them. The beginning of “The Hour” is lifted from “I Put A Spell On You”, but gives way to a beautiful pop melody underscored by dreamy, floating backing vocals. “On My Way/Somebody To Love” is a highlight, with a violin interweaving between June’s fraught voice as she follows a vocal line that echoes The Grateful Dead’s “Friend Of The Devil”. The song appears to end, there is silence, then the sound of an old-fashioned needle hitting a record, and an acoustic version of “Somebody To Love” kicks off with June’s voice supported by a lone mandolin and an occasional choir of melancholy, spectral backing voices. Magical stuff.
The record features an all-star cast of backing musicians, ranging from Booker T. Jones and Jimbo Mathus to some of Hungary’s top session players. Jones plays on “Somebody To Love” and “On My Way,” which he also co-wrote. Recorded at Easy Eye in Nashville (Dan Auerbach’s recently-built studio), Fairfax Recording in Van Nuys, CA, and Studio H in Budapest, the production is uniformly excellent. In an age when so many artists sound exactly the same, it is thrilling to hear a new and singular sound, played with authority and groove. This is biting, new-age indie-blues.
This is not a simple straight-forward blues album although the blues is one of the key foundation stones. It is challenging. It is different. It doesn’t always work. But, when it does work, it is electrifying. Everyone should hear this album.