If anyone ever had a claim to being in a genre of her own it would have to be Valerie June, instantly recognizable for her idiosyncratic vocals and the eclectic, earthy-yet-cosmic blend of folk, gospel, soul, and blues of her own devising, which she has taken to calling “organic moonshine roots music.” Her newest album, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers (★★★★☆) is as rooted in and respectful of her Southern soul influences as it is innovative and psychedelic, all of it anchored by a boundless, wide-eyed curiosity and love for the world around her. Put another way, it’s Valerie June at her most Valerie June.
The album opens with the three-track suite she released back in November, along with a beautifully trippy accompanying video. “Stay,” a plaintive yet hopeful piano number that finds her wistfully reflecting on past loves, is followed by an interlude, “Stay Meditation,” a brief chimes-and-woodwinds suite that recalls the guided meditations June has led from time to time via her social media. Finally, lest we think Valerie June is playing it safe, the third track, “You and I,” takes off in an unpredictable direction, with gorgeously layered vocals that begin with soaring gospel lines before giving way to a psych-folk track led by cascading drum and synth loops and an exuberant guitar solo.
With its bold, complex production, the rest of the album nicely lives up to the grandness hinted at by “You and I,” but The Moon and Stars shows off a plaintive side as well. “Stardust Scattering” gently builds from acoustic riffs to subtle brass, synths, and vocalizing, eventually ebbing off into a funky bass line. On “Fallin’,” an even more sparse, minimalistic track, June’s cooing almost becomes a sigh. This may be an album built on the transportive power of dreams, but it is a very worldly sort of dreaming, one that is the product of a richly lived life and deeply felt feelings.
Valerie June’s legendary fellow Tennessean Carla Thomas accompanies her on “Call Me a Fool,” and the two are a natural fit together. The Queen of Memphis Soul’s backing vocals beautifully elevate an already stellar blues ballad that builds towards June half-singing, half-growling, “Call me a fool.” At least since Pushin’ Against a Stone, June’s songwriting has paid tribute to her many influences and stayed true to their ethos while building a sound that is uniquely her own, and Thomas’ contribution seems to drive that point home.
“Call Me a Fool” is preceded by another interlude track, “African Proverb,” on which Carla Thomas reads off a grave warning — “only a fool tests the depths of the water with both feet.” While meant as an intro to the next song, it serves equally well as a cheeky summation of June’s entire in-with-both-feet approach to The Moon and Stars. You might call her a dreamer or a fool, but she would embrace that characterization. This album in particular seems to build a mythos around her as an inhabitant of some other plane of light and joy, accessible only to those who are foolish enough to dream.
The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers will be available to stream and purchase on March 12. Her first book, Maps for the Modern World, is slated for release in early April.
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