Eilen Jewell: Sea of Tears

eilenjewell_seaoftearsBlue country cool meets hot rock twang

Jewell’s third album retains the 30s jazz phrasings of her vocals, but the folk and country sounds of 2007’s Letters From Sinners & Saints give way to electric guitars that twang like slow-motion rockabilly. No fiddle or harmonica this time, and only a few vocal harmonies supplement the basic guitar, drums, and bass. Dark strums of sustain contrast interestingly with Jewell’s reflective vocals, turning Johnny Kidd & the Pirate’s “Shakin’ All Over” into a contest between cool reserve and hot guitar licks. Imagine the calm and collected Julie London backed by the Blue Caps’ galloping Cliff Gallup. The British Invasion also provides Them’s “I’m Gonna Dress in Black,” rousing Jewell to angry self-pity.

The three covers (which also include Loretta Lynn’s “The Darkest Day”) have been reworked to downbeat- and mid-tempos that dovetail seamlessly with the blue twang of the nine originals. The opening “Rain Rolls In” contrasts chiming 12-string and a languid vocal with a lyric whose resignation extends to the grave. A similar pairing is heard in the mid-tempo title track, a jaunty vocal mouthing words of romantic misery. The aftermath of rejection threads through many of these tunes, alternating between quests of forgiveness and solitary rejections of the outside world; even the blue-jazz pep-talk “Final Hour” is more an escape from lethargy than a trek towards self-empowerment.

The closing “Codeine Arms” bookends the opener’s sense of doom with a consumptive plea that’s closer to the ignominy of McCabe & Mrs. Miller‘s opium den than the desperation of Buffy St. Marie’s “Cod’ine.” Yesteryear jazz and blues vocalists, most obviously Billie Holiday, cast a spell over Jewell’s vocals, but the rootsy support of her band tends more to Christy McWilson territory than Madeline Peyroux. The absence of direct folk and country influences gives this disc a distinct roots-rock sound that’s more singularly focused than her previous releases. Jewell’s a talented songwriter and compelling vocalist, but guitarist Jerry Miller may be the real hidden treasure here. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

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