An exercise in the dangers of excess
On the bluntly titled “African Proverb” interlude, the ‘Queen of Memphis soul,’ Carla Thomas, says, “only a fool tests the water with both feet.” Valerie June has not listened to her own advice because there is no hesitation or apprehension displayed on her fifth studio record, even when it might have helped to have a little. Right after a career highlight with 2017’s excellent The Order of Time, June delivers the most bloated, confusing and yet boring record of her career with The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers. Its aspirations of cosmic dream country are hindered by hideous mixing and undercooked songwriting, and nearly every track falls flat with questionable decision after questionable decision. While its ambition and Panglossian directness are commendable, the end result is anything but enjoyable.
June has always been a cross blend of Americana, folk and even soul music, with a paradoxically unkempt voice and palpable charisma. The Order of Time managed to supplant her froggy, creaking singing with appropriately rough production and an understated moodiness. Even when it added in horns, watery pedal steel and lush keys, it still maintained intimacy thanks to the well-groomed mixing that kept the acoustics and vocals ever-present without sacrificing psychedelic texture and atmosphere. The Moon and Stars goes bigger, with even more layers, which June proved she could handle with songs like “Got Soul,” yet all the poise and craft that went into The Order of Time has been pitched out the window.
There is a way to make June’s distinct vocal timbre work, and this is not it. Even on the outro “Home Inside,” which is supposed to be a peaceful exhale to end the record, her voice seems to expand to take over everything. The old-school, soulful melody of “Call Me A Fool” could have been interesting if June did not aggressively bray rather than delicately croon, and the compression-only exacerbates every rough edge of her delivery. On other songs, her production modulates infidelity or volume to a distracting degree. “Why The Bright Stars Glow,” with its simple piano opening, should be easy to nail, and yet her voice fluctuates throughout the track for no reason. It’s a shame since the lyrics are probably the most consistent element here. They are simple musings on love and success, delivered with very broad language, yet there is something simply transcendent about the likes of “Smile” and “Call Me A Fool.”
On paper, The Moon and Stars is supposed to be a more placid, dream-like record. “Colors” gets the closest to working with its promising opening melody, and the vocals are at their most contemplative and atmospheric. The violins are pretty, the melody is beautiful and it’s such as shame that almost nothing else on the record works as well. There are too many fake drums on “Smile” and “Within You,” and ugly, buzzing keys on “Stay.” The dream-like vibe is also hampered by some of her most slap-dash song construction to date. “Within You,” “Stardust Scattering” and especially the tuneless “Two Roots” drag on with lazy outros of June vamping with no payoff. “Stardust” gets close with pronounced, watery keys and ethereal vibes, while “Smile” has a fat bassline once in a while, and yet the songs suffer from no real ending.
The greatest strength of Order of Time was that it was anchored by classic Americana melody and sounds, and yet the guitar is an afterthought on this record. The lane Valerie is entering has a lot of potentials, which makes The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers all the more soul-crushing to listen to.