Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Valerie June: Pushin' Against A Stone

Well, my two-year-old is either getting his molars or he's actually turning into the kitten he keeps pretending to be ("Mama, I be cat! Meow, meow!"). In the last couple of weeks, after all, he's been chewing on everything in sight with his pointy little teeth, and last night he ran an epic fever accompanied by repeated middle-of-the-night pleas for milk. Whether he comes out of this thing covered in downy fur or just especially chompy, however, my night of sleeplessness put me in the mood for something fresh and relaxing this morning. And Valerie June definitely fits that bill.

The first thing that has to be said about this woman is obviously that she has ridiculously gorgeous hair. And in second place comes a whole list of less-important facts; originally from small-town Tennessee, Valerie June has spent the last couple of years in New York, during which time she also toured with Jake Bugg in the UK. Furthermore, while she's self-released three albums in the past, this record marks her label debut and features collaborations with Booker T. Jones and Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys (who also co-produced it). Then there's also the matter of the album title, which the bio on Valerie's website quotes her as explaining thusly: "I feel like my whole life I've always had a stone I've been pushing. Some days it's a good thing to have, like a best friend, and sometimes it's your worst enemy. In the case of this record, I had so many friends helping me move the stone." Who doesn't feel like that, though, right?

Nevertheless, while the rest of us may share Valerie June's perception of life's hardships, she also has a lot going on that's pretty damn unique. For instance, when NPR asks about her songwriting process, and specifically the mechanism of hearing music in her head, she replies,
"It's usually many different voices. That's always a hard subject to talk about, because it kind of sounds crazy to say, 'Sometimes I hear an older black male voice. Sometimes I hear a younger woman's voice. Sometimes I hear a child's voice.' ... I try to write down every song that comes to me, even though I know that every song that comes to me isn't a song that I need to sing. Some of them are just songs that you write to get to the next song that is yours to sing because you relate to it."
And if that isn't enough to cement Valerie June solidly into the interesting-perspective category, she then goes on to explain that she learned to sing by listening to the variety of different voices at the church she grew up in, and addresses the subject of her highly distinctive vocals (we'll get to that in a second) with the remark, "My mom and my grandmother tell me that when I first started talking, I sounded like I had an old man's voice — they looked around and were like, 'Where's that old man coming from?' ." And I haven't even gotten to her country revival roots, or the Q&A on American Songwriter that quotes her on everything from femininity to Nina Simone!

Since I don't have all day to write this post, however, we're going to have to go ahead and move on to Valerie June's music without discussing any more of her influences, quirks, or stories (although I do strongly encourage you to check out those interviews if you're interested, as they will give you lots of additional insight & respect). So let's start with the fundamentals: Rhapsody classifies Valerie as "Old-Time Revival" and her website labels her stuff as "organic moonshine roots music", but neither of those categorizations encapsulates just how diverse her sound is (well, I guess "organic moonshine roots music" might, but I doubt everyone who reads that will get the same impression). Anyway, while there's a strong old-time vibe to Valerie June's propensity for banjo, ukulele, and even the way she strums her guitar, the funky bass line that winds through many of these songs give them a modern, almost-R&B edge. There's also the gospel-styled vocal layering, the occasional burst of electric blues guitar, and the wholly NOW but timeless lyrics delivered in Valerie's singular voice. And that voice is, without a doubt, the centerpiece of each and every track, as it oscillates between a cracked-old-woman-emanating-from-a-century-old-Appalachian-phonograph acidity (on "Workin' Woman Blues") to haunting and unexpected depth and sweetness (on exquisite murder ballad "Shotgun").

Fittingly, some of Valerie June's most striking vocals occur on the record's first track. And that track, "Workin' Woman Blues", opens with a churning and rich acoustic guitar that's soon joined by lyrics delivered in Valerie's perfectly sharp and sullen throwback tone ("I ain't fit to be no mother, I ain't fit to be no wife yeah/I been working like a man y'all, I been working all my life yeah"). Next in this track's musical line-up comes a driving, hollow beat, and even more unexpectedly, a muddied trumpet that appears midway through the song to add a certain nostalgic depth. Of course, there are also plenty of cuts on the album that sound nothing like this one - "Wanna Be On Your Mind", for instance, sexes things up with chimes, snaps, and bow-chicka-wow-wowing licks of guitar which curl around Valerie's sour-sweet vocals ("Wanna be on your mind/Stay there all the time"), and a drum sequence on blues-rocker "You Can't Be Told" segues into a tune that's half boss-man guitar strutting and half clap-a-long, sing-a-long working man's chorus ("Yeah I gotta break the law/To be free from your chains/I'll plead self-defense/When that judge call my name").

As I'm sure you can tell by now, I pretty much loved this album. And one of the major reasons I feel so strongly about the record is because of how seamlessly it incorporates its opposites; Valerie June's jug band blues are offset by bass lines and production that place the album firmly in 2013, and her century-bending voice delivers a feminine perspective that's bolder than much of today's Top 40 fare. In short, she freaking nails it to the wall with this one. And then takes a lap, and does it again. And again. And again.

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