Valerie June – Pushin' Against A Stone

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Future Blues? Review by Brian Wise.

VALERIE JUNE – PUSHIN’ AGAINST A STONE (SUNDAY BEST/JUNE TUNES MUSIC)

Just four years ago I saw Valerie June playing in the street during the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Sitting under a small gazebo, she played a compelling and intense set of blues to a burgeoning audience that was drawn to her like a magnet. The most impressive aspect was that the songs were almost all original compositions. Last month she appeared as a support to the Rolling Stones at their massive Hyde Park shows in London! That is a long way from Clarksdale and it is a career trajectory that rivals that of Gary Clark Jr!

On Yazoo Street in Clarksdale, the Tennessee-born and bred June sold her two independently released CDs out of a little suitcase for a mere $10 each and told the rapt audience members that she was travelling north to New York to record with the Old Crow Medicine Show. A year or so later her charming EP Valerie June & The Tennessee Express arrived. Since then she has released another indie album, been a part of Luther Dickinson’s project, The Wandering, and has played festivals in the UK and appeared on Later…..with Jools Holland.

Now, June has her first fully-fledged album with major distribution. Shortly after recording with OCMS she met producer Kevin Augunus who introduced her to Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, who then joined Augunus as co-producer of this new album and recorded most of it in his Easy Eye Studio in Nashville. It is quite a contrast to June’s first album The Way Of The Weeping Willow which had been a recorded in an 1800’s farmhouse. The two producers have added substantially to June’s sound without detracting anything from the essence of her music. It is the same approach that made Auerbach’s work with Dr John last year so commendably sympathetic.

To hear June sing is to hear someone who, at the age of 30, has developed her own voice. It is strikingly different and owes as much to gospel, soul and bluegrass as it does to blues. It is somewhat like hearing the blues equivalent of Victoria Williams or Iris Dement, in that there is an almost childlike simplicity to the delivery. If Billie Holiday was a blues singer she might sound like this. There is a similar fragility in June’s voice that helps it cross a lot of boundaries.

The album opens with the sparse, folk blues of ‘Workin’ Woman Blues,’ which is a nice introduction to June’s vocal style and a link with what she has done in the past. As the song develops – and the drums, horn section and harmony vocals kick in – you know that there is a lot more going on here than on any of her previous recordings.

Auerbach’s production is really impressive and his influence can be heard most clearly on ‘You Can’t Be Told’ with its strident guitar riff that sounds like a Black Keys’ outtake; then, there is the very funky ‘Wanna Be On Your Mind’; the urgent title song with its searing, distorted guitar refrain; or, the gorgeous and catchy ‘The Hour.’ If any of these songs gets even a fraction of the exposure enjoyed by most recent Black Keys album then Valerie June is on her way to superstardom!

Auerbach has been able to embellish all of June’s strengths rather than having to try to create or mould something new. His undoubted skill, as is with The Black Keys, has been in helping to make the music accessible to what is potentially a massive audience without losing any of its authenticity.

‘Trials, Troubles, Tribulations’ is almost straight out of church and you can imagine it being sung by a gospel choir somewhere in the South. ‘Tennessee Time,’ with its layered harmonies is almost classic country. Booker T Jones plays tack piano against a guitar, fiddle and harmony vocals on a song he co-wrote, the gospel-tinged ‘On My Way,’ and the sound is beautifully balanced between June’s vocals and the instruments to achieve the sort of authentic sound that transcends the studio setting. Elsewhere, as on songs such as the eerie ‘Shotgun,’ the haunting ‘Somebody to Love’ and the lovely ‘Twined & Twisted,’ it is June’s incredible voice alone that carries the songs.

Valerie June’s undoubted advantage becomes immediately apparent as soon as you hear Pushin’ Against a Stone. It might seem as if she has arrived fully-formed but she has had at least seven years of recording, and more of performing, to find her own voice. It was the same for Gary Clark Jr, who nine years ago was playing happy hour at Austin’s Continental Club as a teenager. Overnight success is rare and often fleeting. One gets the feeling that Clark and June will be around for many years to come.

The other exciting aspect of Pushin’ Against A Stone is that it has unlocked June’s enormous potential and one can only wonder at what she might do in future if her career is handled carefully. For me, the album is certainly a wonderfully exciting listen from start to finish but her voice might be an acquired taste for some. I hope not.

Along with The Alabama Shakes, Gary Clark Jr was one of the great success stories of last year – yet both acts played at The Big Day Out instead of making their Australian debuts at Bluesfest. It would a complete travesty if Valerie June is not on next year’s Bluesfest line-up!

(Pushin’ Against A Stone is available on import or on iTunes in Australia). 

Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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