Album review: Valerie June, Pushin’ Against a Stone (Sunday Best)

Bluegrass, blues and plenty of soul from a sultry singer

Andy Gill
Thursday 09 May 2013 16:33

Valerie June's first album for a proper record label (after three earlier, self-published efforts) is all about her voice. In an era of identikit R&B "divas", June has the most strikingly individual delivery I've heard in ages, a reedy, piercing intonation that cuts straight to the quick.

Significantly, it owes little or nothing to contemporary R&B mores, but instead is grounded as much in bluegrass and Appalachian singing as in Southern soul, gospel and blues. It's utterly disarming in its directness: when she sings "I'll be somebody/If you need somebody/To love", the almost childlike simplicity of the lyric and the plaintive banjo and fiddle arrangement is echoed in the sincerity of a performance entirely bereft of disingenuous slants or ironies.

She's been fortunate in attracting sympathetic producers. On "Workin' Woman Blues", Peter Sabak adds a descending horn line to her cyclical guitar figure, bringing out an Afrobeat flavour that's entirely engaging. While for the rest of the album, Kevin Augunas and The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach conjure up a variety of intriguing backdrops, from the shaker and mandolin anchoring the mountain harmonies of "Tennessee Time" to the distorted guitar that makes "You Can't Be Told" sound like an outtake from Dr John's Gris-Gris.

Her gospel roots shine through the simple spiritual "Trials, Troubles, Tribulations", while the Sixties girl-group flavour of "The Hour" is underpinned by the hypnotic charm of the lilting guitar triplets. Elsewhere, Booker T Jones adds tack piano to the guitar and fiddle of "On My Way", in which the prospect of death is aptly shaded with "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"-style backing vocals.

But it's June's voice that's the crucial component, whether offering almost acappella menace in the vengeful "Shotgun", or oozing a sultry sensuality on the funky "Wanna Be on Your Mind".

It's music that slips between the generic niches favoured by broadcasters; but isn't that exactly where the most interesting music comes from?

Download: Workin' Woman Blues; Somebody to Love; Pushin' Against a Stone; The Hour

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