Valerie June’s debut album, Pushin’ Against a Stone, has dull moments. Her sound seems unoriginal – conservative blues music lacking lyrical subtlety. Yet whenever songs become boring, June brings in something unexpected. The brass section which suddenly punctures the opening track, ‘Workin’ Woman Blues’, is a refreshing surprise. The song begins an album which veers between innovative and tediously outdated.
Having grown up in small town Tennessee, June’s influences are clear. Her album builds on the tradition of Leadbelly and Blind Willy McTell, and her arrangement build from a voice and guitar. But most songs find a way to subvert traditional blues styles. ‘Wanna Be on Your Mind’ feels like a cross between Björk and The Black Keys, with a mellow backing punctuated by constant blues riffs. At times, the album is a successful blend of old and new.
Valerie June’s life story permeates her songs. Her lyrics are about work, religion and poverty. Born into a large family in Humbault, Tennessee, June characterizes her career as a struggle to make it. It’s a narrative her agents are eager to cultivate – as the press release notes, “Pushin’ Against A Stone is so-called because that’s the story of her life.” She became known in Britain after appearing on Jools Holland in late 2012, months after signing with Rob Da Bank’s personal label Sunday Best.
June’s real selling point is her voice. She has an unusually piercing tone, which would usually obstruct the music. The strength in production is the decision to focus on her unusual vocals. In moments like ‘On My Way’, her singing is emphasised by the removal of almost all backing, except a piano and guitar. The album’s momentum is driven by the fascination of June’s voice.
Yet the focus on June’s singing is also the album’s main weakness. Despite its musical strength, there are moments when the glib sentiments of her lyrics disrupt the ballads. Songs like ‘Tennessee Time’ offer little insight, descending into a series of clichés about romance and nostalgia. She’s in territory familiar to many blues musicians, but it’s disappointing for an album which otherwise seems unique.
Between moments of musical brilliance, there are long stretches of repetition. The album is structured around more upbeat songs like ‘You Can’t Be Told’, but to reach them requires listening to those like ‘Somebody to Love’: interesting vocal harmonies quickly become tiresome, due to June’s tendency to stick with a single melody and chord progression throughout four minute tunes.
Pushin’ Against a Stone is an admirable debut, with several original ideas. But between her better melodies, the album is repetitive. Considering the best tracks have already been released as singles, it’s dreary after the first listen.