Home Music Valerie June: The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers

Valerie June: The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers

Listening to “Stay,” which opens Valerie June’s new album The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, the first thing you notice is how familiar it sounds. Then you discover the remarkable instrumentation: the piano opening seems familiar, but deep in the background there’s a synthesizer. The horns come in softly too, followed by a marching drum pattern. Finally, there’s her voice, an instrument on its own, soft and fragile but with an underlying strength as well. After all that, you need a moment to think, which is provided by the instrumental coda, “Stay Meditation.”

You need that moment because what you’ve heard is an artist who’s grown by leaps and bounds over the course of her three albums. Shifting moods and colors within a single song, Valerie June takes chances without the listener ever realizing what’s at stake. “You and I” opens with a scatted vocal, reprising the great jazz singers of the ‘50s. The drumming is out of a completely different musical songbook, boldly modern, while lead and backing vocals examine complexities of relationships in simple phrases: “You and I/ We wait for each other/ Stronger than lovers/ So much to discover.” With a choir of Junes in unison, it’s nothing less than breathtaking.

Over the years, June has seen her share of heartbreak, yet there’s no despair. This is a proud, strong woman, one who may have been battered by the pains and sorrows of love and life, yet she is nothing if not a survivor as evidenced on “Colors.” “Count my wrongs and multiply them/ By the rights to justify what I feel inside.” The song opens with a simply strummed guitar, though along the way strings are added to the mix, along with horns, in a way that is never less than stunning working with the lyrics and creating something greater than the sum of its parts.

There’s an almost mythic quality to the album, a combination of Astral Weeks and The Hissing of Summer Lawns. “Stardust Scattering” was inspired by the poetry of Sun Ra and holds up a jazzy edge while June reflects on her view of the world: “Merrily life is but a dream/ Consciousness directs the stream/ There’s a flow to everything.” Everything about it fits within the aural landscape she has created.

“African Proverb” features the incredible Carla Thomas playing off a subtly Sun Ra-inflected track while reciting, “Only a fool tests the depth of the water with both feet” before segueing into “Call Me A Fool,” where June and Thomas soulfully duet. It’s one of the moments where June cuts loose using the rough-hewn edge her voice possesses. Vocally she is able to do so much, and this is one of the tunes where it all comes together, from a whisper to a scream, illustrating the full range of her vocal skills.

Smiling has never really seemed to be an act of resistance, yet in June’s hands, “Smile” is the ultimate response to oppression. She notes, “As a black woman, a song like ‘Smile’ makes me think about everything my race has gone through, and how positivity can be its own form of protest. It’s saying, ‘We are oppressed, we have so much against us—but the one thing you’re not gonna take from me is my smile.’” How’s that for a truly subversive response?

One of the moments on the album that leaves you with chills is “Home Inside,” where little more than drums, bass and a chorus of Junes are stacked on top of each other to form a march that drives inexorably to the final track, “Starlight Ethereal Silence,” where piano and crickets blend with bells to highlight the close of the day.

Valerie June has done something truly unique, using an array of instruments to move herself out of the blues context. She’s not content to be categorized; rather, she seems to defy categorization and illustrate that good music has no bounds. She goes where she wants to on this album and believes her listeners will be willing to go along for the ride. Only an artist of the first order could have created a work like The Sun and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers.

Summary
From a whisper to a scream, June’s latest illustrates the full range of her vocal skills.
80 %
Exotic and traditional
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