Valerie June, the eclectic Memphis singer-songwriter, releases her most expansive album to date, embracing both love and heartache in equal measure.

Release date: March 12, 2021 | Fantasy Records | Bandcamp | Facebook

Tennessee-born and Brooklyn-based, Valerie June has described her sound as ‘organic moonshine roots music’. It’s not perfect, but for a four-word description of an artist as eclectic as June, it’s not bad. June is a roots musician in the true sense of the word, with influences from Appalachian folk, blues, gospel, country, bluegrass, and soul. Her sound is decidedly earthy, and yet her peculiar brand of cosmic spirituality is anything but.

June’s Dan Auerbach-produced 2011 debut, Pushing Against a Stone, is an under-appreciated gem of modern Americana, sparsely arranged and beautifully executed. In an effort to cast off the quaint-novelty-act label the industry had seemed to place on her, her 2017 follow-up, The Order of Time, introduced country and pop influences, and a more ethereal focus to her writing.

June continues to explore new sonic ground with her latest release, The Moon and the Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers. Enlisting the help of Jack Splash, who’s produced for the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Alicia Keys, June merges her dedication to Americana with pop ambition in her most eclectic album to date. Counter-intuitively, this album feels more personal than her more stripped-back previous efforts. June’s song writing is in peak form as she deals with heartache and loss, accepting pleasure and pain as one character-building whole. It is at once heavy-hearted and positively hopeful.

June’s voice is an exceptional instrument. Her tone and Tennessee accent are similar to Dolly Parton, but her phrasing and exploration of the mystical resembles early Van Morrison. She shows remarkable versatility in her singing, managing to sound fragile on “Fallin’”, reflective on “Home Inside”, and impressively powerful on “Call Me a Fool”. Her delivery is expressive, and with subtle intonations, she’s capable of purveying heart-ache one moment and elation the next.

The most successful tracks on the new LP are the simplest. “Fallin’” is a lo-fi acoustic folk ballad about the impermanence of happy love with some lovely turns of phrase:

Dancing on the devil’s door
Back again and wanting more
Keeps me hanging on what’s in our minds
Looking through the broken glass
Something that we hoped would last
Seeking, searching for what you cannot find

Falling out of love with love
All the things you’re dreaming of
Time was just a dusty ground
Bear without the slightest sound
And I’m willing to let go what was never mine

“Stardust Scattering” is a gentle, psychedelic ballad with minimal percussion, acoustic guitar, and slightly washed-out reverb on the vocals. The lyrics exemplify June’s mysticism:

Merrily life is but a dream
Consciousness directs the stream
There’s a flow to everything
Watch the stardust scattering
Watch the stardust scattering

All we are has always been
Endless possibilities
Still waters run so deep
Awaken from the dormant seas
Watch the stardust scattering
Watch the stardust scattering’

The album’s centrepiece is “Call Me a Fool”, a gorgeous piece of vintage soul complete with backing vocals by the Queen of Memphis Soul herself, Carla Thomas. The track sounds like it could have been recorded at Stax in the mid-60s and is one of several on the album featuring strings arranged by renowned Stax instrumentalist Lester Snell. The song bears a resemblance to Etta James’ classic “I’d Rather Go Blind” in both style and substance. Declaring that true love is worth any consequential pain, a bluesy vocal builds to a climax where June’s voice rises to a growling scream that’s to die for. It may be the most derivative song on the album, but it’s sublime.

Other standouts include “Two Roads”, another strong soul record; “Home Inside”, a lovely Appalachian folk lullaby; and “Colors”, an old-school soft rock ballad about appreciating all of life’s ‘colors’, both bright and dull with a lovely melody that’s wrapped in swelling strings.

The album’s highlights also reveal its primary shortcoming. June is at her best when the production is kept simple. Opener “Stay” starts as an Appalachian r’n’b ballad but soon gets drowned in a swamp of marching-band drums, strings, brass, and backing singers. The lyrics are about being happy in a relationship despite any hardships, and never holding on to regrets. June performed the song solo with acoustic guitar on KEXP, and it was lovely. The dramatic musical canvas here seems unnecessary.

Several other songs share a similar fate. “Smile” is an attempt at joy as a means of protest in the vein of Nina Simone’s “Yong, Gifted, and Black”, but the drum programming and studio echo on the vocals gives it an 80s pop vibe; the very next track, “Within You”, combines an angelic vocal delivery with a slowed-down trap drum loop.

The Moon and the Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers is a collection of heavy-hearted songs that reflect on love’s triumphs and disasters, and remembers them both fondly. Valerie June‘s partnership with Jack Splash allows for a broadening of her artistic canvas, but the results can be overdone at times. When the production allows Valerie June‘s voice to take centre stage, the results are stunning.

Leave a Reply