Valerie June Builds on R&B Traditions with 'The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers'

Valerie June Builds on R&B Traditions with 'The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers'
An endorsement from legendary Stax Records singer Carla Thomas would be a dream come true for most musicians, but Valerie June attains much more than that. The Tennessee-bred rising soul star is backed up by that Queen of Memphis Soul on "Call Me a Fool," a highlight from June's latest album, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers. No wonder Thomas was keen to pass the torch — June brays that song's chorus with rafter-shaking passion and brazen, open-wound vulnerability.

Much of the album features enough storied R&B, roots, gospel and soul motifs to instantly win over fans of those genre's classics. But The Moon and Stars is no retread. Just when June proves her bona fides, she quickly builds on the traditions that she has studied and drawn so much inspiration from. The result is a rivetingly unpredictable album. "Stay" is a prime example, thanks to its old-timey piano notes that lull listeners who will soon be jolted by hauntingly dissonant organ drones. Staccato marching drums and birdcall-evoking flutes then veer the track even further afield. Through it all, June's sweet coos anchor the song, and satisfyingly contrast with its more experimental flourishes.

"You and I," meanwhile, boasts modern drum loops that sputter like a stone being skipped over a Deep South lake. A climactic psychedelic guitar solo, occasional whirring synths and June's soaring voice all amount to a microcosm for the album's overall eclecticism. And while the spare, downcast "Stardust Scattering" puts June's underrated lyricism at the fore (her lines about consciousness over the song's acoustic strums are especially compelling), "Smile" sits at the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum. Its swinging, upbeat rhythm, June's inspiring lyrics about resiliency, and her adlibbed "ooh"s all make the song irresistibly catchy, while its old-school foundation and boundary-pushing elements also give this song the same timeless, mass-appeal quality that propelled Adele, Amy Winehouse and Feist to the top of the charts.

Aside from her distinctive singing and lyrics, and impeccable taste in backing band members, June is proving herself to be a strong producer, dividing the duties of the latter on The Moon and Stars with Jack Splash (Kendrick Lamar, Alicia Keys, John Legend). Here, her mix of convention defying and homages to her forebears give June the potential to not only be as successful as Splash's household-name collaborators, but also build on the storied legacy of Carla Thomas and her ilk. (Concord)