Music Review: Pushin’ Against a Stone

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Music Review: Pushin’ Against a Stone

     Valerie June’s got a near-stunner in Pushin' Against a Stone. Near enough, really that I’m willing to round up. Memphis makes good again, and for real.

     Give her this at least, regardless of your tastes; June’s ambitious. Here’s a marinade, parts country blues string band folkmericana gospel, slapped over a thick slice of analog warmth by producer Dan Auerbach (from the Black Keys). Here’s a sound that’s retro but doesn’t scramble for every shred of dusty similarity to something pressed before 1965. Mournful “Twined & Twisted”’s opening “Thought I had your number/stuck in my phone” makes me shake my head, clear my eyes; I’m not listening to a Motown demo off a rarities box set, I’m listening to 2013 lyrics and an unstuck-in-time sound you’d hear in the rehearsal nexus where Joanna Newsom and Jolie Holland and Rhiannon Giddens and Erykah Badu all come to jam.

     Pushin’ Against a Stone shines with paid dues from the title on down; the arrangements and songs are tight and forceful even when they’re laid back, plenty of time in the gig-and-hustle rockpolisher. The title track indulges a little, trailing a woozy solo behind a stalking B-3, but opener “Workin' Woman Blues” tears it right up, sweaty nervy Appalachian guitar and jitter-funk bass bearing up June’s indelible voice -- narrow and mesmerizing, icewater clear. Then sophomore track “Somebody to Love” is the single you can see for miles, one big tenderhook of a waltz robed up in just enough silky harmonies, fiddle, and Booker T. Jones’ organ. With Jones plus Jimbo Mathus (aka the dude from the Squirrel Nut Zippers), Richard Swift, and Auerbach, June reels off nine more cuts that bleed pop, mixing-booth smoke, the sweat gleaming in the red light of the RECORD sign.

      Get it straight, though; PAAS isn’t flawless. But where it drags, or fades in and out, it returns with a rush, an Album album, best served whole, an often-hypnotic train ride switching from track to Southern track. Here’s a new talent who in the future’s award show roster pulls a space on the bill at the VMAs, CMAs, and BETs. Immediate enough to score the opening credits of any new buzzed-about cable drama and flat-out brilliant in hot moments, I’ll put Pushin’ Against a Stone up against any top-lister in the year’s end polls.

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