Eilen Jewell, |
Sea of Tears
(Signature Sounds, 2009)
As I listened to Sea of Tears for the first time, I asked myself, could Letters from Sinners & Strangers possibly have been as good as I remembered it? I reviewed the latter -- with unrestrained enthusiasm -- in this space on 27 October 2007. I wrote that Eilen (pronounced ee-lin) Jewell "has absorbed a range of roots style, integrating revival folk with jazz, rockabilly, honkytonk and blues, both downhome and uptown, in a startlingly wise and mature fusion." Going back to the CD not long ago after having not listened to it in a while, I was if anything more taken with it. There is nothing quite like it: rural-accented music filtered through something like Peggy Lee's urban sensibility. Letters is indeed an extraordinarily good album.
Sea, on the other hand, is merely an ordinarily good album. And you've heard it before: it sounds like one of Lucinda Williams's more approachable -- i.e., less narcissistic -- efforts, except with occasional British Invasion accents. (Yes, British Invasion. Sigh.) It's nearly all mid-tempo rock and folk-rock, though here and there are reminders that this is not, as you may wonder, somebody else who happens to bear the unlikely name Eilen Jewell. In particular, Jewell's own "Nowhere in No Time" and her cover of Loretta Lynn's fairly obscure but undeniably worthy "The Darkest Day" nod to Letters' sensibility, albeit without the latter's strikingly inventive settings. Her "Codeine Arms" isn't a bad song by any means, but Gillian Welch's "My Morphine," which seems to have inspired it, is simply untoppable.
There was a quality of joy in Letters' sound, bursting with arrangements, mostly acoustic, that jumped out of the speakers and made your head spin. A good part of it was its consistent surprise. None of the instruments, from fiddle to drum to guitars, were played quite as you expected them to be played. The arrangements gave the impression that the comfortingly familiar had been lovingly turned inside out.
None of which is to say that Sea of Tears is a failure. It isn't. It's just something of a letdown and a retreat after Letters had raised expectations that, it appears, Jewell is unable to fulfill this time around. Sea has its own pleasures, and Jewell remains a fine vocalist, an accomplished interpreter and a capable, intelligent songwriter. But the arrangements feel mostly uninspired and unoriginal. If Jewell goes on to have the long career her talent merits, Sea is likely to be judged an honorable but minor work.
13 June 2009
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