The Moon And Stars (Fantasy/Concord)
The brand of soul Valerie June makes is not like the other kids in the yard – and they’re like, it’s better than ours.
Oh, it’s true enough that you can see the bones of soul as we know it: the persistence of groove mingled with a frankness of spirit; the lingering touch of faith and the ever-present hope of redemption; the movement of brass and the sway of strings; the blend of work and play that in its Southern incarnation blurs the differences between field and church and bar and road.
But this is soul filtered through a hazy shade of winter, a kind of distortion affect that tamps down the heat and overflow of emotion, and amps up the disorientation of nights-in rather than nights out. What you get is blurry shifts between rooms and the feeling you’ve stepped into a medicated or mediated space where lines do not hold firm.
As a chronic insomniac I recognise this space. As a night time habitué I am at home here. Not for nothing is the album subtitled prescriptions for dreamers, for this is a liminal zone that doesn’t root itself in any certainty. If soul traditionally works on absolutes of love, loss, lust, sin, hate, it also has always allowed for the ambiguity of holding two or more of those in yourself simultaneously.
What June does is make that emotional confluence manifest.
Within You, for example, moves slowly but without deliberation, like June is suspended between modes as much as moods. The lights don’t show much but are lit enough to allow you to walk; the sounds are blends of the right here and the bleeding in from somewhere else; her voice hangs like a presence rather than the solid centre.
Similarly, Fallin’ hovers between waking and sleeping: just moving enough to pull you but never too firmly, and Home Inside is a call to rise that foregrounds her voice but leaves the background just indistinct enough to obscure the reason to follow that voice.
That’s something established early too. Stay Meditation, a brief New Age interlude of flute and gong, comes between the country bar piano and reshaped soul strings of opener, Stay, and the ethereal psych folk meeting The National-like indoor rock of You And I, like a bridge whose foundations are only evident at the end of the crossing.
It’s an album beginning which like that bridge, only really is understood half an hour later as the album ends with the bucolic embers of Starlight Ethereal Silence, a song that does exactly what it promises on the packet.
Even the moments of relative sharpness or familiarity on The Moon And Stars retain an ambiguity.
Stardust Scattering drifts around you like a seductive fog for its first two minutes until a “hey” from June pierces the air just enough to show the firm ground you can trust in as the brass changes the momentum and your temperature. Two Roads feels like a straightforward ballad but tantalises by never entirely landing in your grasp, never quite going to its next staging post.
And Call Me A Fool, with guest vocals from Carla Thomas, is something that might easily be sung on their knees, hands pleading to heaven to make space for a husky, needy voice. But there’s something intriguingly uncertain about it, like the edge has been smudged in the way the third bourbon might.
Soul, and not exactly soul; dreamers, and not exactly dreams.