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, ...
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. ~ Thom Jurek, Rovi