Music

Valerie June Contends With a Legacy of Struggle and Sacrifice

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While it’s interesting to ponder for its narrative possibility, the idea that an artist could ever emerge fully formed is curious — especially at the moment of their breakthrough. When Valerie June’s official-label debut, Pushin’ Against a Stone (Concord Music Group), started gaining critical momentum in 2013, it was hailed in several quarters as
a neatly gestated statement of purpose from a newcomer. In truth, the Tennessee native was already in her thirties, and her career to that point had progressed in fits and starts for several years, during which she hustled to establish herself on the Memphis scene. Along the way, she appeared on a short-lived MTV web series and did “anything that’s not illegal or degrading,” as she once put it, to make ends meet. The iteration of Pushin’ Against a Stone that was eventually released featured re-recordings of songs that had been in the works since 2010;
far from being June’s first album, it was actually her third as a solo artist.

That her breakout collection of “organic moonshine roots music” sounded effortless to newly converted fans is a testament to her talent as a songwriter and instrumentalist, but June, 35, knows a few things about time, in particular just how long it can take to achieve something true. Her new album, The Order of Time, luxuriates in patience and the slow burn, drawing power from surrendering to both.

Opener “Long Lonely Road” sets the tone for the album, but it’s not one of sadness, as the title might imply. June instead finds inspiration in her own lineage, reliving the history of generations that came before her, whose sacrifices were made so that one day she could find her own path through the world. Her vocal performance grinds down to almost a whisper as she sings about her formative years, preserving that family history on record (“Pops earned his bread in dust/But his hardworking hands fed us/Sun up to sun sink down/His body worked to the ground.”) Strings, keys, and percussion are all at work, too, combined here and in ever more compelling ways on the rest of the album to form the unique blend of folk and soul June calls her own.

Her voice is perfectly suited for roots music; equal parts twang and drawl, it hovers somewhere between Erykah Badu and Joanna Newsom. At times she lets it creep along, wielding it to pick apart a failing romance (“Love You Once Made”) or to caution against waiting to acknowledge love until after it’s gone (“If And”). The grandeur of the latter track owes in part to a sweeping harmonium melody, which should sound out of place — these days the instrument is more readily associated with music from the Indian
subcontinent than Appalachia — but instead envelops the electric guitar riffs and subtle percussion to deliver one of the album’s most memorable pieces.

The instrumentation is as much a character on The Order of Time as June’s voice. A strong supporting cast of musicians takes on synth and percussion duties while she reigns over the fretboards, playing either the acoustic guitar, electric guitar, or banjo on all but one of the album’s twelve tracks. Her deft hand lends itself naturally to musical styles and traditions that are quintessentially American. But June was initially apprehensive of her own national market, choosing to release Pushin’ Against a Stone in the United Kingdom several months before she brought it back home.

Her guardedness at the time was at once a preemptive strike against being marketed the wrong way as a black artist and a means to flirt with stardom before taking a chance on the kind of fame and visibility that is possible on American soil. On The Order of Time June frees herself from any unease, leaning at will into the blues, country, rock, and even a little pop. Lead single “Astral Plane” reflects this lightness of spirit quite literally, as she implores an unknown entity to look within for wisdom and to trust in patience as an intractable aspect of self-discovery (“Is there a light/You have inside you can’t touch/A looking glass/Can only show you so much”).

She seems primarily interested in going beyond the surface of life’s truisms and taking stock of the lessons learned through careful observation of its patterns and rhythms. Heartbreak is a recurring theme, and June makes peace with the fact that time is just as good for strengthening a bond as destroying one. Her resilience is apparent, and there is a certain quiet confidence to the album’s unrushed pace, evident on songs like “The Front Door” and “Slip Slide on By.” In the latter third there is almost a sense that the record is running out of steam, but closer “Got Soul,” with its opening blast of horns, gives it a welcome shot in the arm. “I could sing you a country tune/And carry the name Sweet Valerie June/But I got soul, I got sweet soul,” she intones as backing vocals,
guitars, piano, and fiddle join the mix.
“I could play you, play you the blues/To help carry the load while you’re paying your dues/But I got soul. I got sweet soul.”

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