It takes some guts to cover songs as venerated as the ones on Valerie June’s Under Cover. As in, either you delude yourself if you think you can add to, or better, any the myriad other versions, let alone the originals. Or you are pretty damn good. Self-belief is certainly part the job prècis, and Valerie June has that in spades. She has the talent in spades as well.
You may have heard her name, maybe even some of her material, possibly whilst listening to a blues station on the radio. Or a country music station. Or pop, R&B, or folk. Gospel, even. For she straddles each of these genres, a woman of color from Tennessee, exposed to all and comfortable with each. Following self-releasing her first couple of recordings, she was spotted by Black Key Dan Auerbach, who, no mean gauge of talent, co-produced her 2013 eponymous label debut, which introduced her to a broader and welcoming audience, at home and worldwide. Europe has been especially supportive. Ahead of this, and also worthy of mention, is an EP she released independently, credited to Valerie June and the Tennessee Express. The Tennessee Express were Old Crow Medicine Show.
There have been a couple of albums since, each well-received, if remaining hard to classify under any one genre, perhaps explaining the changes of record label along the way. Fantasy Records demonstrate their faith by issuing this EP, on the back of last year’s album The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers, which had also been on this label.
Is it any good? Let’s see.
I have heard many a “Pink Moon,” and I think this is the most beguiling I have heard in many a blue one. June’s double tracked vocal sashays over a piano backing, and it is a world apart the many guitar-based iterations. Quite lovely, it is promising start. Dave Sherman’s sympathetic piano is also all over “Fade Into You,” with whines of Dan Lead’s steel seeping between June’s altogether sassier-than-Hope vocal. It becomes a song of lascivious intent. So far, we’re two for two.
Next up, on this cross-genre trip across the record store, is a sumptuous version of Gillian Welch’s “Look at Miss Ohio.” Here, steel and organ are the most prominent features, over a solid 4:4 beat. The slight creak in June’s voice is perfect for the song, sufficient to near forget the mellifluence of the original.
“Godspeed” is a song I know less well, needing redress to the Frank Ocean original. Once again I find myself surprised by how well his songs transcribe to a lower key vibe, much as with Cat Power’s version of “Bad Religion” from the top of the year. June’s tone is now a turn of the dial into soulful, and dialed high too, a slightly smoother Macy Gray. Sherman is showing himself the consummate accompanist.
Imagine if “Imagine” could sound new and spicy in her hands? Well, she takes a good crack, but I fear the song itself is just too deeply etched into ubiquity. Here, it comes across as not so much a misstep as a flawed choice. Which is a shame. But the less well known, by comparison, swampy blues of Joe South’s “Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home” cuts through any lingering frowns, with an uplifting N’Awlins style iteration. Just as you think it needs a flute solo, bingo, it’s there, courtesy Hope Clayburn. The understated brass all gives it a joyful feel; It reminds me, voice apart, of early Van or Jesse Colin Young. Terrific.
Dylan? Of course there’s Dylan. Here, it’s a bluesy take on “Tonight, I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” a riot of her increasingly confident vocal, stretching out, and the slide-like steel of Lead. Again, as with “Fade Into You,” June finds some some wickedness in her delivery. This is no statement of being besotted. In fact, she may not even be there in the morning.
Under Cover‘s last song, fast becoming a standard in its own right, is “Into My Arms,” Nick Cave’s paean of devotion. I worried this may fall into the “Imagine” trap, but no. June tackles it straight, much as the original, with just piano and organ, the contrast being her cracked alto over Cave’s lugubrious baritone. It’s as good a version I have heard, which includes the Shelby Lynne/Allison Moorer, hitherto deemed the pinnacle.
The vigilant will be swift to note that not all these are first-time outings. June included “Pink Moon” and “Imagine” on the deluxe edition of her last studio album. (To be fair, having heard her “Imagine” back then, my hopes for this were significantly lower.) Likewise, she released “Tonight etc” as an Amazon original, and “Fade Into You” was an earlier single, an advance taster for the whole project. Such quibbles around duplication aside, Under Cover is a first-class collection, a masterclass miscellany of sources that continue to beg quite where you file it. Under “Good Music” would seem to me to be just about right.
Under Cover tracklisting:
- Pink Moon (Nick Drake cover)
- Fade Into You (Mazzy Star cover)
- Look At Miss Ohio (Gillian Welch cover)
- Godspeed (Frank Ocean cover)
- Imagine (John Lennon cover)
- Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home (Joe South cover)
- Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You (Bob Dylan cover)
- Into My Arms (Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds cover)