Countrified Darling Valerie June's Soulful 'Pushin' Against a Stone' Will Snag Awards, Sell Tote Bags

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Pushin' Against a Stone
Critical Mass
Release Date: August 13, 2013
Label: Concord

by Jem Aswad

Valerie June could have been genetically engineered in some secret NPR laboratory, and I mean that in the least sarcastic way. She's got a strong, unmistakable, Billie Holiday-inflected voice, but the songs on the rural Tennessee native's debut full-length most often hew to a country-gospel style that's like an updated version of Alan Lomax's field recordings — with occasional digressions into classic soul, gutbucket blues, and on album opener "Workin' Woman Blues," West African pop. Her co-conspirators span several generations of American garage and soul royalty: The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach co-produces, co-writes, and chips in some guitar, while Booker T. Jones himself guests on two tracks.

June certainly hasn't come out of nowhere: She's released two indie collections, duetted with Eric Church at the ACM Awards, thoroughly charmed the press, and — shocker — has already been embraced by NPR and KCRW. But all that association and preamble can't blunt the originality of June's songs and sound: Though the references loom large, they're assembled in fresh ways. Stone masterfully combines pristine sound with rough-hewn simplicity, whether she's singing while accompanied only by a ukulele or, as on "You Can't Be Told," delivering a melody that clings unsteadily to Auerbach's snarling swamp riff like a drunken rider on a fed-up horse.

The album has a studied looseness that's never contrived, and it shows a poise and clarity of vision which her earlier efforts barely suggested. The result is one of those reconstituted roots albums — like Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' Raising Sand or even Moby's Play or Alabama Shakes’ debut – that sounds reassuringly familiar yet original at the same time. It’s the kind of thing you could buy for your cool aunt and she’d love it, which means it'll likely be a contender for Grammy love next year.

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