Monday, December 16, 2013

A Valerie June Rose in December

Valerie June
I always have two hopes for a concert: 1) That the artist will clearly be happy to be there, and 2) That the audience will clearly reciprocate the feeling. Under those conditions, a great evening of music is essentially guaranteed.

When a third element is added—for instance, a uniqueness of voice (literal voice) or message (figurative voice) or some force of character is added—the result is not just a great but an exceptional evening.

Laughing at some technical difficulties.
Billy Bragg is of course my gold standard in that regard—as he is for many other people. He is, quite simply, like lembas to a hobbit in Mordor: He enheartens. Imbibing his message gives you the courage and strength to fight another day; he sticks with you—and he leaves a good taste in your mouth (no cram he).

With Valerie June, Mordor is a place that hasn’t even occurred to you yet. It’s a lighter, more joyous trip you’re on (well, except for that Shotgun song, perhaps). It’s more like a stay at Rivendell: plenty of stories, song, and laughter. I hate to sound like an old lady; but, like your grandma might have said: “She’s a delightful young woman.”

Valerie June is both talented and original. She claims her hands are misshapen from her childhood of reclaiming bricks (the family business), but they look thin and graceful flying along her various instruments: her guitars, her “Baby,” as she calls her miniature banjo,  and her “Big Baby” (regular banjo). They look like the hands of a concert pianist or violinist. But her chosen instruments are perfect for that Tennessee twang voice—so perfect for the bluesy music she clearly prefers to play.

That folk-blues style suits her, and it’s one that would be great to have a young female artist championing. Valerie June asked us if we knew any blues women, and while a few people were able to suggest a few names, I will admit I was stopped cold. Unless I could cheat and suggest a bluesy jazz or gospel or r&b artist, I had nothing.

Valerie June mentioned that “they” wanted her to sing soul music, a style she indicated she felt was best left to others. I can only assume “they” are some sort of record company “experts.” There’s evidence on her CD (at least to my ears) that that is indeed the direction in which they are attempting to push. Don't get me wrong: the CD is fantastic. It's just that compared to the fire and energy of a live performance, some songs also appearing on the CD sound relatively flat and overproduced. Not that soul should be flat either; but it feels like a third hand reaching in, attempting to force a square peg through a round hole, instead of just looking for an already square peg and letting the round peg do its round thing. A great example: Listen to track 2, and then go to track 11 and forward to about the 5 minute mark for the “hidden” track—the same song. Track 2 is great; track “11-plus” is powerful. Instead of muffling her voice in a “wall of sound” background, it’s right up front, where it belongs. And yes, I’m aware little-old-me is apparently telling Dan Auerbach how to produce a record. But seriously, dude, why did you bury her vocals?

Valerie also mentioned Townes Van Zandt, speaking of him as a special, positive influence, and not just because of his blues style but because she learned he claimed songs often came to him in dreams. Until she read this about him, she thought she was perhaps a little crazy, as songs come to her in dreams.* They arrive complete, sung by a voice she claims is more beautiful than her own and that she can’t replicate. She figured if Van Zandt dreamed songs then it was no reflection on her mental state if she did, too.

With "Baby"
Well, my hope would be that she listens to the voice in her head rather than any put forth by any “they” trying to shape her into their vision of the perfect profit machine. We already have a Nora Jones; we don’t need two. If the voice in Valerie June’s head says “play soul,” (or jazz or whatever) then fine. But until then, she should just tell “them” that she “Can’t Be Told” what to sing or how to sound.

*PS, There is now a “Cedar Secret”: A little something that she shared for the first time with the Cedar audience and then swore us not to repeat. And I’m not gonna. Guess you shoulda been there; too bad for you! But then we did tell her to come back as soon as ever she wanted (and it certainly seemed like she wanted); so maybe she’ll share it with you then, if you go. Although I suspect the venue will be larger and perhaps less conducive to the sharing of secrets than the (wonderful little) Cedar Cultural Center the next time she comes around.

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