Every now and then, the music world sees a new voice enter the fray that feels at once timeless, classic, and brand new. Back in 2013, with the release of her breakthrough album Pushin’ Against a Stone, Valerie June was one of those voices. Not only was her music a lovely, deeply pretty blend of swaying soul, classic country, and ancient folk, but her singing voice rang out like a long-buried secret, held close by the ages. If that feels hyperbolic, well, perhaps it is, but hers is an instrument that feels fit for such effusive description. Building on her sound with her brilliant followup record, The Order of Time, June’s increased grip on her wild, creaky bell of a voice and particular blend of influences solidified herself as one of modern country’s most exciting artists; a weaver of the earthen and the celestial, the human and the spiritual.
Even to call her work ‘country’ feels like it’s sort of missing the point, and that idea is driven home by her new LP, the gloriously-titled The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers. Of course the hallmarks of the genre remain: the instrumentation and atmospheres often dabble in the familiar, cozy realms of country and soul, with dashes of folk and R&B thrown in for good measure. With barroom pianos, lovingly strummed guitars, brassy accents, fluid basslines, chorus vocals, and a production quality both otherworldly and grounded all employed just when and how they need to be, the album is full of sounds expected and unexpected.
Starting with the slowly growing “Stay”, the album begins with a scratchy quality, as if beaming in off a long-lost 7” single. But, as the layers grow and grow – bass, lithe brass, pianos, drums, multiple Junes – it becomes something else entirely. And then, just like that, it ends, bleeding softly into the instrumental soundscape “Stay Meditation”. These little interludes pepper The Moon and Stars, creating a patchwork quality that mostly serves the experience quite well, further deepening June’s skyward and spiritual ambitions.
“You and I” picks up the mantle with a thick, almost humid production, and June singing in an uncharacteristically low, tame voice. With fluttering drums and her own harmonies, the song quickly finds a laid back groove, augmented by some heavenly background vocals and percolating guitars. There are even some bubbling synths here and there, continuing the ethereal spine that lies beneath much of The Moon and Stars.
June’s lyricism is perhaps where some may be less enthralled – though even that is more of a your mileage may vary scenario. Her words are usually kept simple, with plain but evocative language. Some may find them to be a bit too facile or cliché sometimes, and perhaps they’d be right, but more often than not her words serve her intent. It is a testament, too, to her general aesthetic vision, that one of the oldest songs here, “Colors” (which originated on her barely-released debut The Way of the Weeping Willow), fits in right along the newer tracks. Positive, reflective lyrics like “I know that every day is a living day” or “It goes on and on / ‘Cause this life is just a song” might seem trite on paper, but in June’s specific tone and yearning vernacular, they come alive.
The Moon and Stars is certainly June’s most cohesive and coherent album. Where prior albums may have veered too wildly from one pole to another, this one ambles so gracefully, so gently, that the breadth and details of it don’t fully come to light until after a few listens. The gorgeous, slowly-widening scope of “Stardust Scattering” is a truly lovely moment, and “Without You” coasts on a weird amalgam of hip hop percussion and glassy guitar, with a stirring mantric climax. It could have been a distractingly incongruous moment, but it somehow works. “Two Roads” is made of shuffling drums, whining pedal steel, and a sensuous bass, June concocting what sounds like a classic country ballad that’s been rediscovered for the modern age.
If there’s one real missed opportunity with this album, it’s that June’s voice – arguably her most identifying trait – has almost been pared down across this set of songs. When compared to the beautifully unruly way she occasionally sang on past albums, her singing here seems much softer in general, only peaking in intensity from time to time, like on the sweet “Smile” or the lumbering, passionate “Call Me a Fool”. That gentler quality does, admittedly, fit the more meditative atmosphere June is going for here, like on the quietly lovely “Fallin’” or the delicately curious and life-affirming “Home Inside”, but sometimes you just want her to use her voice a bit more.
Overall though, this is another beautiful entry from one of modern country folk’s best kept secrets. Why June’s meteor hasn’t risen higher and faster than it has is a bit of a mystery, though it’s surely only a matter of time. The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers is June’s strongest whole document so far; it has such a crystalline, atmospheric take on her favored genres that it seems to exist both within and without the confines of those styles. Her singular, moving, astral take on songwriting appears fully formed with this album, and it’s as exciting as anything to see a promising artist truly deliver.