Viewers of Later… with Jools Holland can not have failed to be impressed by the distinctive talent that is Valerie June when she appeared last November. Far from an artist of her era, June’s obsession with vintage roots and blues is not just the signature of her compositional style, but also of her vocal distinction. While many contemporary acts try their hardest to sound authentically vintage, June’s angular vocal is as rich and crisp as Wanda Jackson and as warmly characterful as Billie Holliday. However, given the contemporary technique to document her talent under the guidance of Kevin Augunas and Black Key’s Dan Auerbach, has the full glory of June’s live capabilities been captured?
The simple answer is no. While there is something truly appealing about June’s mainstream dÃ©but Pushin’ Against A Stone (the Tennessee native has released three full lengths independently), it lacks the immediate stop-in-your-tracks pull of her live delivery. That being said, what may be lacking in sheer WOW factor, is certainly made up for in a truly glorious, slow-burn record of self-discovery.
June’s greatest strength may be her inimitable vocal presence, but she also boasts a defining lyrical capability. Opening her album with the beyond words brilliance of ‘Workin’ Woman Blues’, June immediately proves that she is an artist unafraid of exploring her inner depths. As she chirrups ‘I ain’t fit to be no mother /I ain’t fit to be no wife yet / I been workin‘ like a man, y’all / I been workin‘ all my life’, it’s clear that June is unlike so many of her contemporaries. Rather than fancy footing her way around her issues with clever words, June simply tells it like it is.
Though Pushin’ Against A Stone veers towards a Gillian Welch ballad terrain – notably the pretty ‘Somebody To Love’ and ‘Tennessee Time’ – June is at her finest when her sound has a more directed drive. While the aforementioned ‘Workin’ Woman Blues’ is without hesitation the album’s stand out moment, June also shines of the grind of the rebellious ‘You Can’t Be Told’ and the scorching title track ‘Pushin’ Up Against A Stone’.