June Star – Pull Awake
June Star, first formed in 1998, have seen an assortment of names pass in and out of the band’s ranks over the last fifteen+ years, but the abiding mainstays Andrew Grimm and David Hadley continue steering this seminal East Coast alt-country outfit towards brighter dawns ahead. June Star is, without question, part of a particular musical school. Their sound comes straight out of the alt-country movement of the late eighties and nineties headed by beloved bands like The Jayhawks and Son Volt among others crossed with similarly influenced songwriters and older names like John Prine. Grimm’s lyrics are as tight as clenched fists – there isn’t a wasted word in his texts and their intensity is often diluted by some welcome bits of dark comedy.
Despite their membership in a particular musical movement, June Star never sounds imitative. Retro movements or forays into genres like country or blues suggest, to the unwitting, a conscious limitation – many listeners will assume the range of expression in these areas are lyrically and musically limited. June Star proves naysayers wrong with their tenth studio album Pull Awake. The eleven song collection relies on the typical tools of their trade – pedal steel, acoustic and electric guitars, bass, vocals – but extends itself with additional instrumentation like banjo and harmonica. Many of the tracks devote themselves to copping that alt-country sound, but others like “Apollo” and “Coma” embrace straight rock and roll beats, walls of guitars, and succeed spectacularly.
June Star is probably guilty of loving shuffle tempos a little too much, but even there, contrasts are abundant and critical. The middle half of the album, particularly “Walk Away”, relies on variations of the standard shuffle beat, but June Star mixes it up on tracks like “Passed Over”, “Proof”, and “Coma” with the aforementioned rock drumming, a strong sampling of pedal steel on “Proof”, and the stormy “Coma”. The band excels with pure atmospherics as well. “Tether” opens the album and doesn’t play as much as it coalesces for the listener, gradually taking clearer and clearer shape – there’s a woozy weariness surrounding every bar that draws a lot of attention. The album’s final song, “The King is Dead”, ends the album memorably with a duet between the band’s leaders, Grimm and Hadley, on acoustic guitar, voice, and pedal steel respectively. It’s quite unlike any other song on the album and plays in equal parts like a dream and a tightly constructed melodic ending for the album.
Though understated, June Star’s Pull Awake deserves consideration as one of the year’s finest albums. It certainly isn’t immune to criticism, but such observations are particularly important in the larger context of its quality. There’s isn’t a single track of filler – instead, everything here plays with equal importance and the band’s focus never wavers. June Star has endured for many reasons, but one indisputable fact about the band is that their quality has undoubtedly help carry them through an increasingly lean national music scene. Indie isn’t good enough for these guys – their talents deserve a much wider stage.
8 out of 10 stars.