“I’m bound to leave you waiting by the front door,” Valerie June sings midway through her sophomore effort, The Order of Time. It’s hard not to think of Bob Dylan standin’ in the doorway cryin’, or the singers of countless other lovin’-and-leavin’ country-blues songs. But on the very next song, she’s singing about “dancin’ on the astral plane,” an image that hews closer to Erykah Badu’s cosmic incantations than to the vernacular of the American folk tradition. That mingling of the earthbound and the otherworldly is crucial to the album, and June makes it sound like the most natural thing in the world.
June is a Tennessee gal, raised on church music and well-schooled in the blues. Her 2013 debut, Pushin’ Against a Stone, poached sounds and ideas from traditional Americana and made it all sound effortless. Her reedy, expressive voice—which, incidentally, has more than a little in common with Badu’s—mixes jazz phrasing with juke-joint grit, Pentecostal firepower, and the melodic lilt of Appalachian folk tunes. She’s steeped in roots music, and with The Order of Time she starts cracking it wide open.
The songs on this album are all based on folk forms, yet they seldom sound like anything found on other recent Americana releases. June and her band don’t obliterate the traditional framework so much as they allow their bewitching alchemy to boil over and spill out of it. These songs have the skeletal structures of blues, gospel, country, and even rock n’ roll, but they’re also alive with noise and ambiance. They hum, hiss, and drone.
The Order of Time’s third track, “Shakedown,” commences with rockabilly riffs and handclaps, but dark atmospherics color the edges of the song like rumbling storm clouds. And a storm does arrive soon enough, as the chorus erupts with layers of voices and rhythm, blaring organ, and thunderous percussion. “Shakedown” grooves along and becomes a kind of trance, with all of the song’s noise building to a fever pitch, and just when it sounds like the whole thing is going to explode, it’s all breathlessly over.
Not everything on the album is as reckless, though all of it is just as soulful and hypnotic. “Man Done Wrong” is sparser in its instrumentation (just some acoustic twang and shuffling percussion), but it, too, works its way into a mantra, sounding as dusty as a Depression-era country-blues number and as far-out as one of John Coltrane’s trips into outer space. “The Front Door” is almost the polar opposite as “Shakedown”: spare and quiet, with empty spaces that feel cavernous and soulful. And when “Just in Time” brings in the full swirl of the orchestra, it doesn’t sound a bit out of place among the earthier material, as it’s got the same room-filling swell, and the same feeling that it’s somehow ancient and outside of time altogether.
“Long Lonely Road” opens the album with a scene from a church service, and there are references both to sin and redemption, the latter often discussed in the language of falling in love—romance and intimacy each an act of grace. Meanwhile, “Astral Plane” finds freedom through a more inward focus, a kind of self-reckoning that hints at the album’s complexity, and how it brings together old ideas and new perspectives. A triumph of form, The Order of Time is through and through a completely idiosyncratic take on American roots music, steeped in its tradition but not beholden to it. This is music that’s made to sound like it might have sprung up from the ground beneath our feet but just as easily could have descended from another dimension.