Without a full-length album from Valerie June in four years, there is, of course, speculation that we will get a shift in approach which we indeed do on The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers. This project is far removed from those early days of rootsy, bluesy material closely identified with her hometown of Memphis. We think of the Luther Dickinson helmed female band, The Wandering and her 2013 solo debut Pushing Against a Stone. 2017’s The Order of Time found her pushing into dreamy, pop-like territory with hints of blues that still remained, a precursor of sorts to this one. She continues to evolve her sound here, more incrementally than as a major shift, with sweeping and earthy R&B productions and touches of psychedelia amidst the folk-pop orchestrations that infused her previous effort. Knowing that the album was produced by Jack Splash (Kendrick Lamar, Alicia Keys, John Legend) is a clear indicator of her direction. Splash and June each play multiple instruments in these elaborate ensembles.
June worked with Splash in L.A. and in Miami, saying, “For this album I wanted to see how we could bring some modern elements into that band-in-the-room approach I’ve taken with my records in the past.” They used reference points ranging from the Afrobeat of Fela Kuti to majestic string arrangements of Bowie producer Tony Visconti. Plenty of experimentation took place. You’ll hear shimmering piano and horns and a bit of electronica in addition to the strings. Some tracks have as many as 20 musicians while others as few as two and there is even a solo track for June. And don’t fret too much because some of those early elements that formed her style are still present when you peek under the many layers of lush orchestration courtesy of Lester Snell (Isaac Hayes, Al Green, Solomon Burke).
Infusing each line of The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers with her warmly delivered insight, June narrates the long and precarious journey toward realizing a dream. “Any dream is going to be work, and you have to be willing to put in that time and effort to go the long path,” she says. “There’s a lot of failing and rising and twists and turns but dreaming itself can also be a strengthening force that we can all tap into.” One of many songs graced with a lavish string arrangement Stay” opens the album with a piano-laced rhapsody urging listeners to carve out “their own personal space to dream freely,” as June puts it. Next, on “You and I,” June speaks to the ineffable joy of letting others into your inner world, the track’s effervescence.
>This is generous heaping of 14 tracks as if to make up for the long hiatus. You may have heard the first three tracks which were released last year as a three-song suite – “Stay”/”Meditation”/”You and I.” Set against and Elton John-like piano melody, June dwells on the past, much as she did on her last album, singing in her high, captivating, distinctly Southern voice, “Gambled, through I’d lost it,” …Having you in my life was a sure bet.” The middle piece is a fluttering flute driven instrumental leading into her wordless vocal for “You and I,” intensified by the hypnotic rhythms of percussionist Humberto Ibarra, sounds like ethereal chanting until it morphs into a song with lyrics that address a romantic relationship turned platonic – “When the love left just a friendship, that’s when we found our greatest gift. Little distance, for perspective/Gentle patience, sit reflective.”
“Colors” sets her distinctive voice against the sparser, mostly acoustic backdrop as layered vocals and light strings join to enhance the lovely melody. It stands apart from some of the others in that it’s the only tune not produced and engineered by Splash, with Ben Rice credited instead. “Stardust Gathering” is a simple tune partly inspired by the surrealist poetry of Sun Ra, with a three-piece horn section, June playing four different instruments, showcasing her vocals, and living up to the dreamy quality of the title. We then get an unexpected turn as soul legend Carla Thomas reads an African proverb against a backdrop of distortion before we hear June backed by Thomas on “Call Me a Fool,” released as both a sing and dreamy video.
The hushed earthiness of “Fallin’,” released as a single, evokes the sound of her debut as goes alone with her acoustic guitar while “Smile” oozes bouncy joy. “Within You” delivers perhaps the album’s most ethereally spacey sound but “Two Roads” grounds in more tangible soul. She captures the feeling of a child in awe on “Why The Bright Stars Glow,” returns to a stripped-down sound on “Home Inside,” effectively using choir-like layered effects on the vocals before closing with a light meditative flute instrumental, signaling that it may finally be time to put these gorgeous dreams aside and go to sleep.
As June continues to shape her style, it’s clear she’s zeroing in on her muse. The essence of June’s sound is perfectly captured in the album title. She transports the listener through lush soundscapes that not only leave echoes; they leave a lasting halo-like glow.