Album Review: Pushin' Against a Stone by Valerie June
Great, Based on 8 Critics
Exclaim - 90 Based on rating 9/10
It's always treading dangerous ground to talk about "authenticity" when it comes to any style of music. But there's a reason why artists from Memphis, for example, have played such a crucial role in the creation and development of so many genres. The city was the focal point of an area steeped in blues, gospel, country and soul talent, and artists who had the largest capacity to absorb those sounds invariably sounded like no one else.
“I ain’t fit to be no mother / I ain’t fit to be no wife / I’ve been working like a man y’all / I’ve been working all my life.” Quite a weighty, though supremely genuine and honest, way to initiate an album. On Pushin’ Against a Stone, those lyrics, excerpted from opening track “Workin’ Woman Blues”, establish the tone for the debut effort from singer/songwriter Valerie June. An eclectic mix of folk, country, blues, and soul, June is nothing short of a standout talent, hearkening back to the past yet remaining freshly captivating within the present.
The singer and multi-instrumentalist Valerie June “was raised one hour from Memphis and two hours from Nashville,” a place in art where, according to June, “the color lines of the South seem to blend. ” This combination is reflected in her musical choices: she has worked with musicians who seemingly have little in common, ranging from Old Crow Medicine Show to Me’Shell Ndegeocello. On June’s third full-length, Pushin’ Against A Stone, it doesn’t quite matter just how June gets where she is going, as long as she gets there: the musical ends justify the blend of genres that makes up her means.
Pushin' Against a Stone, Valerie June's Concord debut, is the fruit of over a decade of dues paying by the native Tennessean after three self-released "bootleg" recordings. While her music is steeped in various musical traditions of the South -- blues, black and country gospel, soul, and Appalachian folk -- she combines them so idiosyncratically, with canny production from Kevin Agunas and Dan Auerbach, that they openly embrace the possibilities of pop. June's instantly recognizable voice is big and reedy; standing firmly out front here, it falls in a lineage line between Eartha Kitt and Erykah Badu, with hints of the young Esther Phillips and even Dolly Parton.
The label debut by Tennessee-to-New York transplant Valerie June is a remarkably braided album of roots music, connecting country, string band, gospel, blues and R&B traditions so fluently, it's like the racially cleaved styles never needed connecting. Dan Auerbach adds his signature crate-digger production and guitar sizzle, but back-porch-y tunes like "Somebody to Love," with Luca Kézdy's delicious fiddle, are no less rousing than the juke-jointy ones. Credit June's vinegary, slightly oddball vocals, equal parts Diana Ross and Dolly Parton, which guide each song like an old tractor retrofit with LED high beams: luminous, ancient, unstoppable.
Valerie June Pushin' Against a Stone (Concord) Valerie June's official debut manages a tour de force. Born in rural Tennessee between Memphis and Nashville, her music inhabits an extraordinary blend of the country, blues, and soul between the two music scenes and still remains thoroughly modern thanks to co-production from Dan Auerbach. "Workin' Woman Blues" sets the tone, a gnarled twang rooting the tune with the distinctiveness of folk-blues great Elizabeth Cotten before fervent percussion and horns slide in seamlessly to push the song into Afro-pop territory.
Valerie June grew up in Humbolt, Tenn. That’s just north of Jackson, home of Carl Perkins and damn near smack dab between Nashville and Memphis. She sounds like it too, with her Dolly Parton twang and Memphis soul groove. She’s put out records on her own for years, and last year was a part of Luther Dickinson’s folk-rock supergroup The Wandering, along with Shannon McNally, Amy Lavere and Sharde Thomas.
“Pushin’ Against a Stone,” the remarkable debut by Valerie June, is the sound of an artist who carries the weight of the world in her voice but has never forgotten her roots. June grew up in Tennessee but makes music that’s hardly tethered to time, genre, or even a single mode for the way she sings. She forges an aesthetic that’s at once rural and urban, with traces of soul, country, gospel, and the blues.