Tag Archives: Signature Sounds

Eilen Jewell: Down Hearted Blues

Sparkling Jewell covers the blues

Eilen Jewell’s voice has always been from another era. From her earliest country folk to the country shuffles, western swing and hot club jazz that have filled out her catalog, Jewell’s often had at least one peep-toed shoe in the 1930s. Even as she added electric guitars and growling saxophones to the mix with 2009’s Sea of Tears and 2014’s Queen of the Minor Key, she retained the out-of-time otherworldliness of her vocals. Her last album, 2015’s Sundown Over Ghost Town, dialed back the jazz, rock and R&B to electric country folk that married the directness of Woody Guthrie to the choked emotion of Billie Holiday. Two years later, the blues are back, as Jewell rips through a brilliantly selected and deftly executed collection of covers.

The dozen selections here weigh towards the 1950s and 1960s, with sides drawn from the Chess, Checker, Excello, Ace, Finch and Bluesville labels. The disc opens with a killer take on Charles Sheffield’s “It’s Your Voodoo Working,” driven by the spellbinding guitar of Jerry (“Not Moby Grape’s”) Miller. The covers include singles and deep album tracks made popular by Howlin’ Wolf, Big Maybelle, Little Walter and Otis Rush, and reach back to earlier sides from Bessie Smith (“Down Hearted Blues”) and Moonshine Kate (“The Poor Girl’s Story”). This is a connoisseur’s’ selection, highlighted by a rockabilly-inflected take on Betty James “I’m a Little Mixed Up” and a smokey, Peggy Lee-styled read of Little Walter’s “Crazy Mixed Up World.”

Jewell loosens up her voice, not to a full blues shout, but with an extroverted passion that, supplemented by Miller’s wicked guitar playing and a crack rhythm section, leaps from the speakers with authority. Even when playing coy, there’s no doubt who’s in charge, and unlike idiosyncratic stylists such as Holly Golightly or Lucinda Williams, Jewell takes a lighter touch in rethinking her covers. Jewell tips her hat to the material without losing centerstage, and in doing so the album sheds new light on the songs and the singer. The diverse material, drawn from the 1920s through the 1960s, fits together into a cohesive album, aided by Miller’s range of guitar styles and a flexible rhythm section. From start to finish, this is a love letter to the blues. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

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Cold Satellite: Cavalcade

ColdSatellite_CavalcadePoetic lyrics set to blues-tinged country rock

The second collaboration between singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault and poet Lisa Olstein is more musically upbeat than their self-titled 2011 release. The band returns with its original lineup of Billy Conway (drums), Jeremy Moses Curtis (bass), David Goodrich (guitar, piano) and Alex McCollough (pedal steel), though their music is more forceful and electric than the contemplative folk-blues of their first outing. Foucault rises to the occasion with soulful and impassioned vocals, but his easily imbibed melodies and the band’s rootsy playing can find itself at odds with the impressionism of Olstein’s lyrics. “Necessary Monsters,” for example, rolls along on the drums’ shuffle and terrific bursts of blues guitar, but if the lyrics have a sad story to tell, they’re not giving it up easily.

Closer to the surface are the anguished loss of “Careless Flame” and resignation of “Sleepers Wake,” and the band cranks up some rock ‘n’ roll to accompany the hail storm of “Silver Whips.” You can hear the influence of Nivrana (or is it Pearl Jam?) in the grungy “Pearlescent,” with guitars that wash with distortion as Foucault bays Olstein’s cautionary warnings. The mid-tempo title song sounds like something Ronnie van Zant might have written as a deep album track, and there are Bad Company and U2 influences in “Bomblet,” with lyrics that find a poetic image among smartphones on a concert floor. Foucoult has a knack for setting Olstein’s poetry to riveting music, but listeners may want to keep an ornithology reference handy to look up “guillemots” and “auklets.” [©2013 Hyperbolium]

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Caroline Herring: Camilla

CarolineHerring_CamillaPlaintive mix of country, folk and blues

As fine as was 2009’s Golden Apples of the Sun, Herring’s latest release is even more completely her own. In addition to writing ten of the album’s songs, she’s reanimated the eleventh, “Flee as a Bird,” from a mid-nineteenth century hymn book. Her music is given added muscle by producer Erick Jaskowiak and a backing band (including guitar, pedal steel, fiddle, banjo, bass and drums) that leans more to country than folk. Her vibrato, reminiscent of Buffy St. Marie and Joan Baez, remains a plaintive instrument whose tone is as telling as its words. Her songs are literate and historical, telling of injustice, greed, and inextinguishable hope that intertwines the struggles and accomplishments that have threaded through country, folk and blues. Her stories highlight moments of redemption, triumph and peace against a backdrop of turmoil and grief, but tears – whether of anguish or relief – are never far away. Herring welcomes Claire Holly, Katherine Roberts and Jackie Oates as harmony vocalists, and an a cappella turn with Mary Chapin Carpenter and Aoife O’Donovan on “Traveling Shoes” is especially fine. Herring’s fans will enjoy this next chapter, and those new to her work will be quickly motivated to explore the back catalog. [©2012 Hyperbolium]

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Caroline Herring: Golden Apples of the Sun

CarolineHerring_GoldenApplesOfTheSunSuperb folk album from Austin-based vocalist

Though Herring has come to prominence in Austin music circles, her music has veered away from the bluegrass with which she began, as well as the country with which she rose to prominence. Her voice has always harbored a singer-songwriter’s intimacy, but starting with last year’s Lantana, she stepped further in front of her band and dropped the drums and steel in favor of acoustic guitars and bass. This fourth album pushes even further in that stripped-down direction, with hard strummed and rolling finger-picked guitars providing the dominant backing, augmented by bass, piano and touches of banjo and ukulele. The minimized backings reveal additional depth in Herring’s voice, an instrument that mixes the vibrato of Buffy St. Marie, crystalline tone of Judy Collins, and several dashes of Lucinda Williams’ emotional poetics.

Herring’s latest album splits its twelve tracks between originals and covers. The latter includes a brilliant conversion of Cyndi Lauper’s 1986 hit “True Colors” into a dark spiritual. Lauper’s sung this song live with guitar, piano and zither, but it was still infused with the original single’s optimism. Herring pitches the vocal ambivalently between worry and reassurance, with a moody rhythm guitar that dispels Lauper’s upbeat mood. The oft-covered murder ballad “Long Black Veil” provides Herring another terrific opportunity for reinvention, stripping the instrumental to a drone, the song is more of a distraught first-person confession than the folksy story of Lefty Frizell or Johnny Cash. Even the Big Bill Broonzy standard “See See Rider” is reborn amidst the vocal trills Herring adds to edges of her performance. Similar high notes and tremolo decorate a tour de force cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Cactus Tree.”

The original songs, five solo compositions and a co-write with Wendell Berry and Pablo Neruda, are even more closely attuned to Herring’s vocal charms. The lyrics are filled with questions of uncertain relationships, longing for escape and understanding, distant destinations and brave faces. Singing to low acoustic strums, Herring jabs with the lyrics of “The Dozens,” demanding engagement in the guise of a game of insults. The assuredness with which she sings adds weight to every word, and the emotion-laden quality of her voice can bring tears to your eyes. Though she can conjure the ghostly images of earlier times, the clarity of her tone and the forthrightness of her style are more in the folk tradition of the 1960s than the 1860s. Herring is a critical darling whose work outstrips the plaudits of even her most ardent admirers. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

MP3 | Long Black Veil
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