June Star – Pull Awake
Baltimore based June Star have, improbably in this day and age, survived and prospered for nearly two decades as one of the nation’s best kept musical secrets. The four piece, focused around singer/songwriter Andrew Grimm and pedal steel guitarist David Hadley, have been plying their trade since 1998, but their musical reference points reach back much further. Hadley’s pedal steel lines are strongly flavored with a lifetime listening to classic country while Grimm’s lyrics and bone-dry delivery are reminiscent of figures from the alt-country movement of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s like James McMurtry. Their tenth studio album, Pull Awake, boasts eleven songs that synthesize the band’s disparate influences into a highly musical, coherent whole. The production presents a balanced sonic picture and incorporates instruments outside of the band’s typical configuration, like banjo and harmonica, without losing sight of the larger artistic picture.
“Tether” and “Feathers” open the album as a strong one-two punch. While its lyrical content turns toward the darker end of the spectrum, “Tether” milks its ponderous tempo for every bit of drama. It’s a slowly unfolding tune dependant on instrumental color, rather than snappy melodies, to achieve its effects. “Feathers” has a similar thrust but, thankfully, the band dials up the tempo and introduces rockier elements into their sonic blueprint. “House Call” has a distinctly different tint thanks Hadley’s steel guitar. It punctuates the song’s muted shuffle with the instrument’s indelible lonesome whine, but Grimm’s darkly comic lyric about a contentious romantic relationship and his droll, but sometimes surprisingly affecting, vocal give the song considerable appeal. June Star brings back the rock edge for “Wonders”, but it never veers far from the Americana vibe stamped so clearly on the band’s songs.
“Passed Over” takes a similar approach marrying four on the floor rock drums with the band’s coolly confident amble. The song has such a relaxed vibe that an initial listen might lead the inattentive to think there’s not much going on here, but a deeper examination of the song reveals another superbly constructed track with Grimm’s terse lyrical inventions in full flower. June Star takes their biggest whack at outright rock with “Coma” and the gamble pays off big. The guitars chew up the scenery with big chord flourishes, but also bite and snap at the listener with clear, diamond hard Telecaster fills. The album’s penultimate song, “Apollo”, visits the same territory with a big dollop of Tom Pettyisms added for good measure. The electric guitars grumble with a nasty distorted sheen and the band latches onto a stomping groove quite unlike anything else on the album.
Despite the genre, Pull Awake is a surprisingly diverse affair. June Star have certainly been working long enough to know how to pay appropriate respect to the genre’s conventions while nonetheless focusing their efforts on crafting collections that are relatively wide-ranging excursions. Their confidence is hard to miss, but it isn’t hubris – they are simply seasoned professionals and artists. Their long career doesn’t dilute their current work of any vitality – each of the album’s eleven songs fully engages with the experiences and emotions they depict. This is as fine of an album as you’re likely to hear in 2015.
9 out of 10 stars.