Cazz Blase listens to Valerie June’s debut studio album, Pushin’ Against a Stone and finds a maturity and ease of style that suggests longevity
Valerie June calls her music “Organic moonshine roots music” and, given both the ease of her performances and the rawness of her songs, this would seem to be an apt description.
June creates songs that have their origins in country, gospel, roots and bluegrass and, of course, the blues. Her debut album, Pushin’ against a stone, has been released on Rob da Bank’s label Sunday Best and opens with the raw and rootsy ‘Workin’ Woman Blues’, June’s debut single and calling card. The most explicitly gritty of her songs, ‘Workin’ Woman Blues’ showcases June’s songwriting, guitar and singing skill alongside a fierce sense of anger and injustice. “I ain’t fit to be no mother, I ain’t fit to be no wife, I been workin’ like a maniac, I been workin’ all my life,” she sings over a stark guitar as an exquisite jazz horn adds beauty to a piece that reeks of the sweat of hard work and poverty. It may be delivered in a retro style but the themes are timeless.
The pared down minimalism of ‘Somebody to Love’ doesn’t need a jazz horn for added beauty. This Dixie country lullaby has its own understated purity, like Butch Cassidy riding off in the rain and dust. It could be both campfire sing along and soothing lullaby, a first dance at a wedding or something that evokes memories and tears, such is its universal charm.
Soulful and ghostly track ‘The Hour’, which follows, has a repetitive riff that lodges itself in the brain. This is the sound of summer, delicate, minimal and lovely, which is not to suggest that it is any way an ephemeral piece, more that it carries itself lightly. It feels akin to doo wop and the girl groups of the early 1960s, such as the Chantels, but with a thoroughly modern evolved sound.
‘The Hour’ is followed by the strumming rootsy country of ‘Twined & Twisted’, which begins softly and a cappella. It is a very intimate and poignant piece, evocative of isolation and restless travel, a world weary busker assessing her lot. June manages to communicate a lot simply with voice and guitar; this is one of her strengths.
The bewitching ‘Wanna Be on Your Mind’, a wonderful modern soul song, shows the ease with which June can switch between musical genres. Her voice has range and can wrap itself around and interpret different styles. Here, June’s phrasing owes as much to jazz stylists such as Sarah Vaughan as it does to more modern organic soul singers such as Erykah Badu. While ‘Wanna Be on Your Mind’ is fairly light in the thematic sense, June fills it with more meaning and feeling than seems possible of a song of fascination and lust, making it seem a closer relative to ‘I Put a Spell on You‘ than ‘Someone Like You‘.
The twangy country of ‘Tennessee Time’ is followed by the brooding fuzz guitar and juddering electric piano of ‘Pushin’ Against a Stone’, and June’s vocals are similarly brooding. The song owes a lot to sixties acid rock, to the likes of the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Big Brother and the Holding Company. It is, it has to be said, straight outta Monterey, but in the best possible way. It is innovative rather than prescriptive, transcending slavish pastiche and soaring above the seas of the mediocre. The naturalness of the vocal suggests that June is a woman who listens to a lot of music and has formed her own opinions about it; she responds instinctively and easily.
‘Pushin’ Against a Stone’ contrasts well with the strumming, soothing country lullaby that is ‘Trials, Troubles, Tribulations’, a song that is not too sweet, and which stays the right side of sentimental while maintaining its roots in gospel.
‘You Can’t be Told’ was June’s second single, a rather stompy affair that bears closest contemporary resemblance to retro rockers such as Holly Golightly, Kitty, Daisy and Lewis and Jake Bug. This is rock & roll in the traditional sense, from a time when it meant ‘Louie Louie’ by the Kingsmen, rather than Jack Daniels and leather trousers. The song clearly has appeal to both rock & roll enthusiasts and hipsters, but it doesn’t feel particularly representative of June’s output.
The rootsy and atmospheric minimalism of ‘Shotgun’, meanwhile, features excellent slide guitar alongside eerie spine tingling vocals the like of which have probably not been heard since Neko Case’s ‘Furnace Room Lullaby‘.
It is followed by ‘On My Way’, which features a lovely gentle guitar melody overlaid with piano. It’s one of the strongest songs on what is already a very accomplished debut album and its classically understated blend of uplifting country is a joy.
The album closes with an acoustic version of ‘Somebody to Love’ which, if anything, is even more gorgeous than the earlier, original version. It’s a strong enough song to survive stripping down and has an enduring quality that is common across the album.
Valerie June’s songs have a timeless quality but are more than simply retro; they have their own magic. She has a maturity and ease of style that suggests longevity, and she deserves to be heard.
Valerie June will be supporting the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park 13 July. She will also be performing at Latitude on July 21, at Cambridge Folk Festival 28 July and at the End of the Road festival 1 September.
Image description: Cover of Valerie June’s Pushin’ Against a Stone. This shows a sideways head and shoulders shot of Valerie June in a red top, looking to the right, with her hair piled high.
EDIT: The original standfirst for this review had a release date of 13 August 2013 on it. This has now been removed, as it relates to the US and not the UK, where the release date was 6 May.