Valerie June handles vowels with uncommon dexterity. In the aughts, when she was selling self-released albums out of her trunk, her shape-shifting vocals distinguished her in the Memphis music scene. June's voice quavers with the dark, enunciated wisdom of a woman who has lived through and heard it all; in it can be heard frissons of gospel, mountain folk, city blues, and Tennessee roots. Pushin' Against a Stone, June's 2013 major-label debut, polished the singer-songwriter's edges into an eccentric yet conventionally charming soul-country effort, produced by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach. Her new album, The Order of Time, endeavors to unsand those ends.
Not to say this project is at all unfinished. Rather, it insists on its rawness. The production emphasizes the audible humanity of a certain catalogue of instruments: acoustic guitar, banjo, hand claps, fiddles, organs. June's voice is barely tampered with, maintaining some of the errant scratches, drifts, and wails that were smoothed out of the highly aesthetic packaging of Pushin' Against a Stone. On "If And," the textural nature of her bluesy drone makes it seem like she's actually in the room with you, tilting her head to the side, singing about "kids all grown-up" and "parents gone broke."
June has said that she and producer Matt Marinelli recorded the album in a rural town in Vermont. A good deal of the eventual tracklist began as songs she'd sketched out while still living in Memphis, over a decade ago. Throughout The Order of Time, she stays focused on the tradition of askance storytelling attributed to griots of the American South. Many tracks immerse you in an intimate domestic scene, in medias res. "Pile in the church pew rows / Gran made the best yeast rolls / Gospel of stories told," she sings on the opener, "Long Lonely Road." A heart is "gathered from the floor" on "Slip Slide on By." Another highlight, "The Front Door" — a gentle and slow ballad with an organ whispering behind the acoustic guitar — is about the heartbreaking, liminal spaces where lovers are abandoned. "Take what's mine / Love can be so unkind," June observes.
Women's work is a subject to which June has regularly paid homage. A multi-instrumentalist in addition to being a truly disarming vocalist, she has put decades of grind into perfecting her polyglot sound, which she has called "moonshine roots." On Pushin' Against a Stone, songs like the title track and the aptly named "Workin' Woman Blues" continued a Southern songwriter tradition of bearing witness to the incessant and varied labors of modern womanhood. June's gift, however, is imbuing the details of daily life with a beguiling glow. For her, the work that women do encompasses emotional and physical territory: They are lovers, artists, mothers, and daughters.
The aquamarine-tinted video for "Shakedown," the album's most overtly celebratory song (next to the slightly melancholy "Got Soul"), is dedicated to the memory of June's late father, Emerson Hockett, who worked as a local promoter in Tennessee for acts like Prince and K-Ci and JoJo (the song even features background vocals from him). June has credited her father for exposing to her the submerged wires interconnecting regional genre: how blues relates to bluegrass, how big-city horns compliment small-town folk, where the mountains meet Memphis.
There are hints of an alternative geography on The Order of Time that undo the album's darker earthliness, just past the halfway point. "Astral Plane" sets its sights past the horizons of Appalachia, focusing on dreaminess: "Floating through the stratosphere / Blind, but yet you see clear." The song functions as the album's clearing place. It's followed by the wishful yet mournful "Just in Time," which is in turn followed by the love song "With You." "And if I should fall so deep, let it be with you," June sings sweetly with a string section's assistance. The opening-up is lovely to hear. June has had her winters; she has earned this spring.