Valerie June wants to be on your mind; to get inside your head. She writes or co-writes songs that mix blues, gospel, folk and soul, and which describe emotional isolation, financial deprivation and insecurity about her place in the world. She's unafraid to proclaim her neediness — perhaps because, possessed of a powerful voice, she knows that her vulnerability isn't likely to come off as passive or self-pitying on Pushin' Against a Stone.
"Somebody to Love" sounds like a lost Appalachian fiddle song, or an obscure blues stomp in which the stomping is done with a light tread. If you don't immediately key into June's strategy of simplicity, she might strike you as someone who's posing as a lonely poor girl, the way Lucinda Williams poses as an artless outlaw, or the way Mumford and Sons pose as world-weary folkies. But as Valerie June moves through Pushin' Against a Stone, her journey becomes absorbing; you take in the sights with her and qualms about authenticity or attitude melt away.
At first, I thought the one element this album lacked was a sense of humor, but then I started picking up on June's tart tone. For example, the way she says, near the end of "Workin' Woman Blues," "Lord you know that I am ready for my sugar daddy" — as though beseeching God for a rich man to solve her problems is a serious prayer. She's sly, but she's also up for a challenge. The biggest stylistic chance she takes on Pushin' Against a Stone is to settle her voice in among the big, ringing guitars Dan Auerbach and others play in the title song. The melody, the lyric and the organ riff try to insist that this is a song of doom, a duel with the devil, even as her voice tells you she knows she's already triumphed.
The marketplace will do what it will with Valerie June — she'll either be perceived as a quaint semi-novelty act and become a cult artist, or her ringing voice will excite the ears of people now trained to hear big voices by Adele, and she'll become a star. Either way, she's made an album that slices across styles and decades of popular music with a cutting canniness that will serve her well in the future, whatever it may be.