Nick Bollinger checks the new album by Tennessee blues woman Valerie June.
Blues tends to be thought of as the most earthy of music styles. Valerie June is an artist whose roots might be in the blues, but her new album traces an arc all the way from the earth to the ether.
A striking presence with her Medusa hair, usually hunched over either her guitar or banjolele, and singing in that that distinctive, piercing voice, ‘Shakedown’ is the first single from this new album, and among its many virtues is the fact that it stays on the one chord throughout.
That one chord groove has been the basis of both Bo Diddley style rock’n’roll and the West African desert blues, and it is something Valerie June keeps coming back to throughout this excellent album, though it’s by no means the only thing she does. Let’s stick with that one chord groove for a moment though, because it is the thing that seems to connect her most strongly to the earth. It’s the same quality you’ll find in field hollers or the hill country blues of Mississippi, music made by poor black farmers, though at times these modal melodies have an almost-Asian sound to them. Either way, they sound like the music of toil.
The other strands to Valerie June’s music might be more sophisticated; at least they involve more than one chord. But like the hill country blues, they are particular to the region she grew up in. Memphis is the largest city in the state of Tennessee, and as well as being a magnet to the rural blues players it was where a more urban sound developed, through the soul music of the 60s. And Memphis soul is the obvious touchstone for songs like ‘Slip Slide On By’ and the closer ‘Got Soul’.
Sometimes the line between soul and country music can be awfully blurry, and Valerie June slides back and forth across it more than once. The difference can be as little as a steel guitar. Try ‘The Front Door’.
It’s raw and elemental, and yet there’s also something metaphysical about it. Her voice could be that of an old transplanted soul; it’s the kind of voice you’d find on an Alan Lomax field recording. She writes about things close to her; friendships, family, love, and the land. And sometimes it’s as though she’s singing not so much for the audience that’s in front of her, but for those ancestors who might be somewhere listening.
Songs featured: Shakedown, Man Done Wrong, If And, Slip Slide On By, The Front Door, Got Soul.
The Order Of Time is available on Caroline Records.