Valerie June – Pushin’ Against a Stone (Best Albums of 2013 – Review)

Valerie June describes her debut full-length album, Pushin’ Against a Stone as “organic moonshine roots music”. And that’s a fair assessment. Filtered through Dan Auerbach’s pristine modern production, June’s songs form a potent cocktail of Appalachian folk, gutbucket blues, country, bluegrass, soul, Afro-beat and Americana. Pushin’ Against a Stone is the culmination of a decade-long trial of touring and recording for the Tennessean singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist (the album is preceded by three low-key EPs) and announces its author as an artist worthy of any and all hype thrust upon her in the coming year.

The album opens with “Workin’ Woman Blues”, June’s stab at blues-tinged West African pop. A hurriedly picked and strummed acoustic guitar figure provides the song with its centre, around which an impossibly funky bassline, a skittering drumbeat, excitable trumpet, and June’s insistent vocal gradually gather. June’s voice is one of esteemed lineage, falling somewhere between Erykah Badu and Nina Simone, at times recalling Billie Holliday, and on more than one occasion, Dolly Parton. World-weary and full-bodied, it’s a voice that sends shivers down your spine the first time you hear it, instantly grabbing the spotlight and pushing everything around it into the periphery. While the album is steeped in the varied musical traditions June has immersed herself in for the past decade, and likely long before that — blues, gospel, soul, folk, country — it’s that voice that pulls everything together, providing Pushin’ Against a Stone with a much-needed through line.

The gorgeous “Somebody To Love” is sparse and enchanting, with ukulele and fiddle forming the backdrop for June’s vocal, while the distant warmth of organ swells (recorded by none other than Booker T. Jones himself) and added vocal harmonies fill out the soundscape. Jones’ unmistakable Hammond B-3 crops up again on the ‘60s girl-group soul-pop of “The Hour”, and on the title track, which also features a trippy, psychadelic guitar solo from Jimbo Mathis. Nowhere on the album is co-producer Dan Auerbach’s influence more apparent than on the Black Keys-esque “You Can’t Be Told”, with its swampy blues groove and infectious hand-clap percussion. Auerbach also duets with June on the bare, acoustic guitar-and-vocal cover of Estil C. Balls’ “Trials, Troubles, Tribulations”.

Elsewhere, “Shotgun” is a haunting, austere murder ballad, with June’s slide guitar and tempered, bitter vocal conspiring to chilling effect; “Twined and Twisted” is Southern folk; “Wanna Be On Your Mind” is a jazz-blues earworm, replete with funk guitar, atmospheric strings, glockenspiel ripped straight from the pages of the Phil Spector playbook, and an irresistible call-and-response vocal; and “Tennessee Time” is a nuanced country waltz.

Pushin’ Against a Stone is the stunning amalgamation of June’s influences – from Memphis and the Deep South to the plains of West Africa – impeccably showcased on an album fused with the young artist’s natural musical instincts and her unique voice pushing to the forefront. On Pushin’ Against a Stone, Valerie June emerges as a major talent with unlimited potential.

Bob Russell


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