Brooklyn-by-way-of-Memphis singer-songwriter Valerie June set ambitious sights for her fifth album. Working with acclaimed producer Jack Splash (Kendrick Lamar, Alicia Keys), June embarks on a journey that spans the musical spectrum. The album, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, is both raw and intricate in its construction. Sometimes atmospheric, sometimes ethereal, it aptly taps into everything from old-school blues and Americana to soothing and earthy acoustic intimacy and upbeat funk.
With Splash in tow, June focused on music exploration and challenging her own norms while recording. That meant mixing modern-day touches with the more traditional “band in the room” style of recording to create something fresh and challenging. That mission was a success, as The Moon And Stars is filled with a sense of musical adventure and variety.
Songs like opener “Stay” are brimming with nuance and subtlety, fusing an Appalachian R&B style on top of a lush musical canvas. The track soars with the addition of strings, brass and backing singers before closing out with a flute-laden meditative outro.
Other songs like “You and I” are brilliant and gorgeous in their simplicity, a musical restraint and quiet calm that allows June’s immersive vocal presence to carry the day. While she no longer lives in Memphis, the Tennessee sound remains a part of her DNA, adding an ever-so-slight Southern drawl. “Colors” turns back the clock for vintage balladry that taps into the sounds of those that came a generation ago, while the acoustic “Stardust Scattering” puts more of a psychedelic spin. The song again leans on minimalism with a hand drum, acoustic arrangement and a slightly washed-out reverb on the vocals.
“Call Me a Fool” features a collaboration with Carla Thomas and touches on the dreams, both big and small, that we collectively strive to achieve. It feels slightly more modern in its production, while staying true to the sounds that came before. “Fallin'” thrives on its simplicity, with June singing in a near-whisper alongside one plucked acoustic guitar. Her mastery of her voice makes for a truly joyous listen, with each subsequent track showing off something new.
“Smile,” meanwhile, will give you joy. It’s a tight and upbeat classic funk-inspired romp. “All I can do is smile,” June sings in the chorus. “Within You” is a fascinating cross of genres. On one hand, it’s a jazzy exploration, while on the other there’s a light rhythmic loop keeping the beat. In many ways, this track encompasses the totality of Valerie June’s music: a mix of classic meets modern.
“Two Roads” is straight-up soul. June’s delivery is stellar and constantly drives the song (and the album) forward, leaving the listener demanding more. She dials back toward the traditional on acoustic ballad “Why the Bright Stars Shine” before the album closes out with ballad “Home Inside,” which relies almost exclusively on June’s vocals and the slightest addition of a bass line and percussion rhythm.
The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers is a smart, adventurous and downright joyful listen from a songwriter with a bright future. It’s an album worthy of further investigation.
Follow writer Mike DeWald at Twitter.com/mike_dewald.