June ends up too polite when she could be making a definitive statement.
It’s tempting to think of Valerie June as belonging solely to the world of Americana. Her early, independent releases showcased a sound close to the dirt. There was also a sense of humor (“No Draws Blues”) that has been sorely lacking on her mainstream efforts, including this latest one, The Order of Time. That’s a minor complaint, though, because June continues writing material that speaks from the heart, often with an unflinching honesty. She tempers that grit with a sweetness that remains, alternately, her greatest charm and the one thing that wears on the listener the fastest. Here, she trades those rootsy sounds in favor of Memphis soul stylings. The result? Too often this album is style over substance with the songs starting promisingly enough before getting stuck in grooves that leaves them wandering.
The opening “Long Lonely Road” stands among her best here. It’s a slow-burning, plaintive examination of the spare rewards found in an honest life. It’s about people who are constantly seeking rewards but find few. She keeps the instrumentation spare with gentle acoustic guitar, drums that do little more than keep the time and a few ornamental flourishes from keyboards and electric six strings along the way. We don’t necessarily care about where we’re going because June’s singing serves as joy enough.
A similar approach mires the slow soul cooker “Love You Once Made.” Though June wisely avoids over-emoting, her restraint ultimately keeps the song from bursting into the bright and vibrant colors that seem to live just beyond its reach. Come the first chorus and we’re searching for an exit, a quality we don’t normally associate with June’s best work. “Shakedown” adds some of that punch and pow but little else. An under-realized rave-up does little more than prove our heroine has some high-energy kicks left.
“If And” manages to blend soul and roots sounds with conviction. It also finds June delivering one of her more powerful and memorable performances on this record. The understated nature she employs elsewhere works here because the singing and the lyrics feel intimate and revealing. “Man Done Wrong” is a heartfelt lament that finds the vocalist at her most haunting. The spare instrumentation and repetitive melody create a dreamlike state that proves unshakable and provides further evidence that one of June’s greatest strengths is in finding nuance within simplicity.
That’s true even when she aims for more commercially minded heights such as on “Astral Plane,” one of the more polished numbers that doesn’t lose the plot. There are a few of those, including “With You,” where her voice floats in amid arpeggios and strings, finding the perfect middle ground in a track that could have otherwise fallen victim to unnecessary ambition. Her soul tendencies are at their best on “Slip Side on By,” which would have been an effective closer.
Instead, the album’s tail end offers two middling numbers, “Two Hearts” and “Got Soul,” that could have easily been cut due to their tendency to endanger the goodwill the artist has won on the record’s best moments. Once again, June ends up being too polite when she could be making a definitive statement.
Will she ever make that leap? She certainly seems capable. This album at least points her in the right direction even if it doesn’t actually take her there.