Review: ‘Pushin’ Against a Stone’, Valerie June

In a word, Valerie June’s voice permeates. It’s quite a task to divert your attention to anything else when it invades and envelops your eardrums. The pointed banjo and guitar plucks, the sweeping fiddles, the blaring car horns of your morning commute as Pushin’ Against A Stone plays in your stereo: anything and everything register as an afterthought to June’s vocal prominence. Stylistically, June incorporates a wide range in her cadence: southern gospel is the most obvious, given the singer’s Tennessee roots, but one also detects echoes of Emmylou Harris’ divine country swoon as well as the freak-folk shrill of Joanna Newsom. What’s most astonishing is June never quite sings the same way twice on the record: the first two tracks alone sound as if they may come from different vocalists. It’s certainly to June’s credit that she can remain so utterly compelling while trying her hand, or rather voice, at country, folk, blues, and rock deliveries as the album progresses.

Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys lends a hand on co-written tracks like the smooth and soulful “Wanna Be on Your Mind” and rollicking “You Can’t Be Told”, and veteran indie producer Richard Swift shows up to help on mid-tempo soul of the title track. As a result of Auerbach’s influence, those tracks exude a blues-rock swagger reminiscent of not only the Black Keys oeuvre but that of Jack White’s various projects. June is game to utilize this borrowed vibe to galvanize her singing, but the most heartfelt moments occur with solo-penned tunes like “Somebody to Love” and the enthralling slide-guitar murder ballad “Shotgun”, the album’s finest song. Another highlight is opener “Workin’ Woman Blues”, which channels and condenses the urgency of Nina Simone’s soul classic “Sinnerman” for a woe-is-me worker’s lamentation so well-crafted you can practically hear the callouses on June’s fingers scrape against her guitar strings.

As a songwriter, June certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel on Pushin’ Against A Stone. The lyrical themes are nothing new to those familiar with country and folk music: working a life-consuming job, running away from a past life, longing for one’s country home and “Tennessee Time” while dissing the city life, pining for a long-awaited lover, imploring the good Lord for assistance. But June’s music wisely inhabits the genres in which her talent flourishes, so listeners will be quick to forgive the clichés and bask in June’s singular gifts.