Baltimore and Maryland especially have a very deep, intricate musical history. From the extensive scene of hard rock and old school heavy metal worship that spawned greats like The Obsessed and Spirit Caravan to the legendary DC punk scene and unknown blues rock greats like Hillow Hammet from 1969, there is no shortage of great music from the area. The current musical climate is no less exciting and June Star’s latest album Pull Awake is a great example of the originality that comes from Maryland.
June Star isn’t exactly a new band. The group’s origins date back to ’98 with Andrew Grimm founding the project and collaborating with several other musicians that congealed into a pretty steady, solid line-up (currently a four-piece) of songwriters and multi-instrumentalists. This is the band’s tenth studio album, so as a hardcore music buff I’m a little ashamed to admit that this is my first time listening to them! Thankfully, good music doesn’t have an expiration date. June Star is a familiar blend of sounds that’s like a cross-pollination of the 60s and 90s. The alt-country movement is a big influence but so are the folk/country shakedowns of Bob Dylan, Hank Williams and Tom Waits. A crisp, crunchy recording brings polish to the table, so that’s certainly from the modern crop but the music itself comes across as timeless. The one-two punch of “Tether” and “Feathers” gives you a good idea of what the record’s about. Steadfast, r & b rhythms flirt with rock n’ roll bombast while dirty, grungy guitar riffs open up into arid, roaming acoustic/pedal steel arrangements that are magical nods to music’s storied past. Grimm stands at the helm, delivering his vocals with an afflicted rasp straight from the heart of Nashville and sometimes he’s joined by backing harmonies beautifully wrapping around his poignant storytelling.
Pull Awake is built on a bread n’ butter, meat n’ potatoes approach where country is given a mulekick in the rear thanks to some good rock n’ roll done up with a blues approach. “House Call” bucks June Star’s tradition with acoustic, American Gothic balladry where even the percussion is kept to minimum; the soft groove draped in swirls of chunky, upright bass, intoxicating steel melodies and southern-friend acoustic licks. Smoldering yet edgy riffing comes back into play on “Wonders” with tempos to match. The drumming toys with jazzy work on the snares and the acoustic/slide interplay moves at an aggressive clip that makes for a head-nodding rocker sure to ignite the kind of biker bar these guys probably frequent on tour stops. Variety is the spice of life and June Star has plenty on this record, take for example “Walk Away” a coal mining, gold-panning jam where banjo, distant electric guitar soaked in reverb and pedal steel all ride in the same wagon.
“Passed Over” is another mid-tempo tune lost in an oasis somewhere between rock and country, but it’s a bit forgettable, crafted in virtually the same mold as “Feathers” but lacking a hook of equal quality. Bringing things back around “Proof” feels like some classic Hank Sr., outlaw country mingling with the dusty, dirt road folk rock of Wovenhand and it ends up an excellent precursor to the riff-dominated groove of “Coma.” Of the remaining tunes “Apollo” is the best of the bunch packing in some of the album’s heaviest riffs and hard knock rhythms. The whole thing is burning and baking with 4/4 blues grooves as the rhythm section jackhammers away at a cinderblock of old blues. More acoustic balladry is dealt on “Atrophy” and album endnote “The King is Dead,” and Grimm displays songwriting that it’s built to handle any volume, loud or quiet in the process. His tunes are versatile and excel either way.
by Craig Bowles