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Pushin' Against a Stone

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Album Review

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. (For examples of the latter, check the string band waltz "Tennessee Time" or the world-weary folk narrative "Twined & Twisted.") While tradition is paramount in June's songs, it includes the present, making her the antithesis of a purist. Check opener "Workin' Woman Blues," where a skittering drumkit underscores urgent acoustic guitars, a funky bassline, and a jazzy, bumping, funky trumpet (reminiscent of Blue Mitchell) in a droning, griot-like blues. "The Hour" borrows the intro and outro from "I Put a Spell on You," and points to the darkness in the lyrics of the second verse. Yet the rest of the tune is a hybrid of early-'60s girl group pop and soul, complete with three-part harmony and a swelling B-3. That intro also makes its presence felt on the title track, adorned with wailing, fuzzed-out electric guitar atop a B-3 pulse, and June's delivery moves through Ray Charles' informed soul and Thomas A. Dorsey-infused gospel in the backing chorus. The only cover here is Estil C. Ball's "Trials, Troubles, Tribulations." It's an acoustic guitar and vocal duet (with Auerbach) that comes right out of the Carter Family but sounds contemporary. "Wanna Be on Your Mind," with its Rhodes piano and June's emphatic phrasing, references Phillips' early-'70s jazz-blues style. "Somebody to Love" is a ukulele and fiddle waltz, but it is soul, treated and gospelized by June's vocal and Booker T. Jones' organ. The single "You Can't Be Told" is a swampy blues with Jimbo Mathus on lead guitar that recalls R.L. Burnside in instrumentation, but June's delivery and her four-part call-and-response backing chorus make it a hypnotic, swaying groover. "Shotgun" features the songwriter accompanied only by her own bottleneck guitar offering a murder ballad. Its presentation is so subtle and smooth, it becomes jarring when the listener takes in the lyric. Despite her slippery blend of styles, June's songs on Pushin' Against a Stone reveal there is one historical place she doesn't deviate from: the storyteller's, a Southern hallmark. Despite being a shade too long, this is a solid endeavor that asks many questions even as spins its tales.

Customer Reviews

It grows on you

Didn't like it at first, but I can't stop listening to it. It certainly grows on you, and it's that good I'm giving it five stars.

A very soothing album

I bought this album on a whim, never having heard of Valerie June's music but I'm very glad I did. It's lovely easy listening music with meaning. Her style is a mix of country, blues and singer songwriter alternative. Sounds very 'indie'. Lovely stuff, definitely recommend.

Beautiful

A lovely album, perfect for some beers on a warm humid day with your lady. She has such a lovely voice that cuts through the music perfectly. I've always enjoyed the Southern vibes and I've always loved the blues and some soul so this hits the spot. Not all that "indie" as someone else mentioned, It's very rooted in Americana (as I would like to call it) taking elements of what made American music so good back in the day. I hope this lady does well :) and if se ever needs some support in the UK I'm there!

Biography

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '00s, '10s

Blending folk, soul, blues, and Appalachian traditional elements into a refreshingly timeless sound that sits outside any particular musical era, Valerie June stands in a long and storied line of unique performers in Memphis, a city with a still vibrant music scene even into the 21st century. The daughter of a brick cleaner from Humboldt in the flatlands of West Tennessee, June took quickly to the various local roots music styles in the area, teaching herself guitar and developing her own stylistic...
Full bio