“I ain’t fit to be no mother / I ain’t fit to be no wife / I’ve been working like a man y’all / I’ve been working all my life.” Quite a weighty, though supremely genuine and honest, way to initiate an album. On Pushin’ Against a Stone, those lyrics, excerpted from opening track “Workin’ Woman Blues”, establish the tone for the debut effort from singer/songwriter Valerie June. An eclectic mix of folk, country, blues, and soul, June is nothing short of a standout talent, hearkening back to the past yet remaining freshly captivating within the present. Perhaps she doesn’t reinvent the wheel on this Southern sensible affair, but she easily asserts herself as a viable, complete musician.
“Workin’ Woman Blues” showcases June’s raw, distinct vocals, riding over her own guitar accompaniment. Building gradually, the minimalist production grows slightly larger, adding the anchor from bass and drums and, later, trumpet (played by Barabas Lorinc). From start to finish, the “Workin’ Woman Blues” is on autopilot. The follow-up has a lot to live up to, but “Somebody to Love” excels at this tall task. June trades in guitar for ukelele, and gets musical assists from Booker T. Jones (organ and vocals) and Luca Kezdy (violin). The overall timbre is lovely as is the songwriting itself, finding June putting herself out there as the perfect companion: “I’ll be your somebody if you need somebody.”
Things grow more dynamic and exciting on “The Hour”, the first of several co-writes between June and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. June powerfully continues her honesty, stating on the second verse “there were times he raised a hand / and I could not understand / but you know my man and me / we could never agree…” The carefully penned lyrics of the verse are united by an equally strong chorus: “The hour won’t tell you no lie / it won’t hide or disguise.” Soulful with exceptional production work consisting of omnichord, B3, guitars, bass and drums, “The Hour” is a crowning achievement by all means.
Throughout Pushin’ Against a Stone, June oscillates between bigger productions and more intimate, restrained ones. “Twined & Twisted” falls in the latter camp, and finds June accompanying her alt-country vocals once more with guitar. “Young with all the answers / found out on my own / that everything I thought I knew / ‘twas a lie twined and twisted through,” she sings confessionally. June contrasts stripped with maximal once more on the superb “Wanna Be on Your Mind”, where vocally she has the whole chilled-out, Erykah Badu vibe working for her. Additionally, a catchy chorus bodes exceptionally well in her favor. Musically, it’s amazing what a Wurlitzer and mellotron can add.
“Tennessee Time” eschews restraint, but rather than opting for soul like her previous cut, June sticks with country on this unapologetically southern tune. Unsurprisingly, June delivers brilliantly. She’s even better on the valedictory title track, which is an incredibly strong collaborative songwriting effort between June, Auerbach, Kevin Auguanas, and Richard Swift. Filled with guitar effects no unlike the work of the Black Keys, June has the upmost inspiration to fuel her pipes.
The remainder of the effort is satisfying as well. “Trials, Troubles, and Tribulations” finds June blending outstandingly with Auerbach’s vocal harmonizations. The country southern gospel cut is a perfect match, given June’s ‘roots-driven’ sound. On “You Can’t Be Told”, the lyrics are incredibly catchy, most notably on the “ever changing” hook with lines such as “Won’t do right and he can’t be told / no he can’t be told” and “eagle bird got his eye on you / everything you do, he got his eye on you.” “Shotgun” gives June a sort of freer, singer/songwriter moment that may not excite like the full-fledged productions, but still shines brightly; closer “On My Way” once more reunites June with Jones and Kezdy. There’s even a hidden ukelele-only take of “Somebody to Love” enclosed (a separate track on digital editions).
Overall, Valerie June delivers a sensational debut effort with Pushin’ Against a Stone. It’s not necessarily innovative, but in a day and age where conformity is too often the ‘it’ thing, June offers a truly worthwhile alternative. With exceptional production work courtesy of Dan Auerbach, Kevin Augunas, and Peter Sabak combined with June’s great gifts, Pushin’ Against a Stone is easily one of the year’s better albums.