Valerie June – Pushin’ Against a Stone
Road-weary singer and multi-instrumentalist Valerie June finally makes her major label debut with a near perfect piece of Americana. In seamlessly mixing folk, bluegrass, blues, soul and gospel, June makes the point that these genres have always had way more in common than what the record bin dividers and radio station dials indicate. Reminiscent of 1960s folkie Karen Dalton, June’s voice has a sort of nasally twang, but she just as easily can turn sultry on tracks like R&B number “Wanna Be On Your Mind” and the girl-group pop of “The Hour”. The only slight stumbles here are the raised volume and guitar noise on the title track and “You Can’t Be Told”. The individual songs are fine, but producer Dan Auerbach’s presence is much too noticeable on these two, and the added raw edge comes so late in the album that it seems out of place. Minor complaints aside, Pushin’ Against a Stone is a beautifully realised statement from a long up-and-coming talent. Hopefully, she is here to stay.
Jagwar Ma – Howlin’
It takes a few moments into Howlin’ to get a good idea of what Australian duo Jagwar Ma are up to, but once you’ve gotten past figuring out which 1980s bands are being fetishised by the young kids these days, it all becomes clear: the cycle of retro borrowing has at last made it to 1990s Manchester. The production is full of the synth sound found everywhere in current pop and art rock, but there’s no denying the Primal Scream beats, Stone Roses funk and even Oasis-like pop. As for contemporary nods, one can hear the poppier side of Animal Collective in Gabriel Winterfield’s layered vocals. Luckily, these guys are quite good at their thing and give a nice reminder of why anyone ever liked alternative rock – it used to be really fun. Jangly rockers like “That Loneliness” and “Let Her Go” sit aside mid-temp groovers “Man I Need”, “The Throw” and “Come Save Me”. While never quite danceable, the programmed beats stay interesting and are often tastefully ramped up at just the right moments.
Various Artists – Afrobeat Airways 2: Return Flight to Ghana 1974-1983
Following up 2010’s winning compilation from Analog Africa, Volume 2 offers two more discs of deeply funky and rare Afrobeat from Ghana. Overall, the music is awash in tropical sounds that maintain a steady shuffling rhythm, with raw highlife guitars and punchy horns. It never reaches the heaviness or intensity of Fela Kuti’s classic sound, but it is no less groovy. Genuine stars in their era, Ebo Taylor and K. Frimpong, appear here along with largely unknown groups whose music waited decades for the right vinyl collector to come along. Highlights include Uppers International’s “Aja Wondo” and Taylor’s previously unreleased “Children Don’t Cry”. Both volumes in this series are highly recommended for fans of African music and rare, dustbin funk.