TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Valerie June is a singer-songwriter from Tennessee who's just released her first major label album called "Pushin' Against a Stone." It was coproduced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Rock critic Ken Tucker says the album does a good job of showcasing June's powerful voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WANT TO BE ON YOUR MIND")
VALERIE JUNE: (Singing) Want to be on your mind. Stay there all the time. And you can call my name. Want to be on your mind. Stay there all the time. And you can call my name.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: 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 an insecurity about her place in the world. She's unafraid to proclaim her neediness, perhaps because possessed of a big, powerful voice, she knows that her vulnerability isn't likely to come off as passive or self-pitying.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEBODY TO LOVE")
JUNE: (Singing) If you're tired and feeling so lonely, you wake up at night thinking that only if you have somebody. Well, I'll be somebody, somebody to love. Day to day, there are plenty of fish in the sea, but you're out in the cold and you're feeling empty, looking for somebody. Well, I'll be somebody, somebody to love. I'll be somebody...
TUCKER: That's "Somebody to Love," an original song by Valerie June that manages to sound 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 this album, her journey becomes absorbing. You take in the sights with her, and qualms about authenticity or attitude melt away.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORKIN' WOMAN BLUES")
JUNE: (Singing) I ain't fit to be no mother. I ain't fit to be no wife, yeah. I been working like a man, y'all, I've been working all my life, yeah. All my life, y'all. All my life, yeah. Ain't no dinner on the table. Ain't no food in the refrigerator. I've got work, and I'll be back later.
TUCKER: At first, I thought one element that this album lacked was a sense of humor, but then I started picking up on June's tart one. For example, the way she says, near the end of that song, "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 this album is to settle her voice in amongst the big, ringing guitars Dan Auerbach and others play on the title song "Pushin' Against a Stone." The melody, the lyrics 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 triumphant.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUSHIN' AGAINST A STONE")
JUNE: (Singing) (unintelligible) Poison tale and dovetail, things to be done. Been pushing my way up against a stone. And I believed in my soul it was time to move on. There you go. There, there you go. Try to feel, try to feel, how this life, how this life, in your mind or my soul, carry on, carry on. Try to feel, try to feel, how this...
TUCKER: 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 by TV shows like "The Voice," 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.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Valerie June's debut album "Pushin' Against a Stone." If you want to hear more from the album, you're in luck, because it's an NPR first listen. You'll find a link on our website freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair, and you can follow our blog on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.