As opening lines go, “I ain’t fit to be no mother/ I ain’t fit to be no wife” is certainly arresting. But then everything about Valerie June’s latest album is startling. The line is from “Workin’ Woman Blues,” which, over its short three minutes, builds from its dry-as-dust, spare blues foundations into an ornate brass-encrusted teetering edifice that shouldn’t make sense but does.
It’s a canny choice of first song, as Pushin’ Against a Stone rarely adheres to convention. The same could be said about Valerie June. This 31-year-old Tennessee native has spent the last decade flitting between Memphis and the West Coast, busking, selling herbs, working in bars and cleaning, all the time writing and playing. However, it wasn’t until June decamped to Brooklyn and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach agreed to write and produce with her that things finally clicked.
It’s clear that Auerbach’s patronage has liberated June. This is an album dense with ideas finally coming to fruition. The ghostly, tired desire of the beautiful “Somebody to Love” is minimalist soul that gives way to the languid, gospel-infused shrug of “The Hour.” That’s followed, however, by “Twined & Twisted”‘s keening Appalachian bare-bones folk, a shaft of bright beauty that almost makes you squint.
Any thoughts of austerity that working with a minimalist like Auerbach might inspire are quickly swamped by “Wanna Be On Your Mind” which slinks along lasciviously in an immersive and atmospheric fug of sultry Memphis heat. The title track, however, is a real killer, matching the heights of “Workin’ Women Blues,” by somehow simultaneously evoking the winsomeness of early-period Supremes and the forlorn sexuality of “Glory Box”-era Portishead.
Auerbach’s influence on Pushin’ Against a Stone is most noticeable on the near-preposterous swagger of “You Can’t Be Told” with its slash and burn guitar and tightly wound central riff. But this is Valerie June’s album, Valerie June’s triumph. She’s worked damned hard to get here. It’s been well worth the wait.