When we think of musicians and the music they play we tend to qualify them by what came before. ‘Without X you would not have Y,’ or ‘if X didn’t do this then Y couldn’t do that.’ These are the kinds of arguments that will go on long after the final chord has been struck. But when it comes to talking about the music we know and love one thing seems decided. None of that music would exist if it were not for the blues. Revered folklorist Alan Lomax once described the blues as becoming ‘the main musical form of the whole human species.’ Even so, as a sound the blues can, at times, seem something of an antiquity and usually people only think of it in relation to the influence it has had on the music of today. Every once in a while we require someone to remind us where that music came from and why it is so vital. Right now that someone is Valerie June.
Pushin’ Against A Stone is Valerie June’s debut album proper and presents an artist who doesn’t pay tribute to the legacy of the blues – she sings it. No indeed, this is not a hokey collection of standards grown musty and old but a fresh and vibrant take on true roots music – bringing together gospel, soul, Appalachian folk, country, and, of course, the blues. It’s not always perfect, and some of the moves made here do not always pay off, but on the whole this is a really fine album that deserves your time and attention for her presence alone.
Let’s start with June’s voice, and my goodness it’s a belter. Opening single “Workin’ Woman Blues” establishes the Tennessean’s vocal talents as both far-reaching and affecting, a winning blend of country drawl and impassioned soul. This track has been around for a while now and really is the best introduction to the singer and her band, so it’s fitting that it should be the first thing we hear as we are welcomed into this record.
The following two tracks present an interesting variation in the tone of the album and that is between tender songs like “Somebody to Love” and “Twined and Twisted” and the soulful “The Hour.” “Somebody to Love” is easily one of the highlights here; it’s just such a lovely little piece where lines that might otherwise sound corny like ‘if you need somebody, I can be somebody’ are given authenticity, warmth, and true joy. “The Hour” represents the more upbeat, more gospel-inflected side of the album, and, with its immediately satisfying choral response and dusty, vintage production recalls all the delights of Motown.
The next three songs are similarly varied, going from the pleasant, understated funk of “Wanna Be On Your Mind” to the waltzing bluegrass “Tennessee Time” to the raw garage rock of the eponymous “Pushin’ Against A Stone.” The last of these presents the only real misstep on the album for me. The fuzz and drive of this track is undoubtedly the work of The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach (who has production credits on this album) but somehow I just don’t find the grungy guitar works all that well with June’s voice.
Any grievances are quickly forgotten when we get to the proceeding track – a heartbreaking rendition of the gospel standard “Trials, Troubles, Tribulations.” This famous song that tells of man’s coming judgment at the hands of the Lord is given new life with June’s stirring yet minimal treatment, and it seems to capture something of the God-fearing yet romantic mythology of the American South.
The album is rounded off with the wailing blues of “You Can’t Be Told,” the haunting “Shotgun” and the appropriately titled and affable closer “On My Way.” These are all fantastic but it’s “Shotgun” that deserves a special mention as the traditional, classic murder ballad. June can do a great deal with her voice, whether it’s in sounding energetic and lively or sombre and gentle but I never considered for a moment that a person with the capacity for such sweetness could carry off the line ‘I’m gonna get my shotgun darling, ‘cause you know I love you baby and if I can’t have you nobody can’ and for you to believe it.
Pushin’ Against A Stone is a testament to the lasting power of blues music and, as far as ambassadors go, I can’t think of a better one working in the modern day than its author, Valerie June. It’s a great record not just because of the past it recalls but of the present it informs, and deserves to be listened to by anyone and everyone who wants to know where it was that their favourite music came from, and why it still matters.