Sea of Tears
(Signature Sounds through Shock Records)
Yes, I thought her name was Eileen too, the first twenty times I saw the name in print. My eyes just didn’t register the missing “e”.
It raises an interesting point: if your eyes can be fooled in this way — where the habit of reading Eileen tricks your brain into misreading Eilen — then your ears can probably be tricked in the same way. That’s why my rule of thumb for reviewing is that I have to hear the thing 10 times before I’ll put finger to keyboard and express an opinion on it. We all know it: the way the music sounds in your head changes on repeated listenings and ten times seems about the right number of times it takes to feel confident that you are “getting” it, that your brain is making sense of the sounds it is hearing.
Anyway, I’m breaking that rule for this album, simply because I like it so much, am pretty confident I am getting it, and so therefore really wanted to tell someone about it.
This is a great album. If you are into the whole (so-called) alt-country thing, then Eilen Jewell is another one of those artists who pop up with almost annoying regularity on the American roots scene, who take that tradition and make it new and vibrant and interesting. Come on, do they have a factory or something? It just seems amazing to me how many great performers this genre turns out.
I mean, there is something formulaic about the music, as there is about roots music generally. But that’s not a bad thing and is obviously part of the tradition’s appeal: that not only does it strike at something pretty fundamental in the human psyche, but that it provides the comforts and joys of recognition. A cynic might think that if you had a decent/interesting vocalists and a reasonable bunch of musicians that it wouldn’t be that hard to turn out a passable roots album. Dress it up in the maketing category of alt-country and you might just have a hit.
But we aren’t talking “passable” here. Gillian Welch is not passable. Nor is Lucinda Williams or Vic Chesnutt or Stacey Earle or a bunch others I could name. Nor is Eilen Jewell.
So merely being formulaic doesn’t cut it as an explanation. A better way to look at it might be that the intrinsic appeal of the music attracts a large number of talented musicians who want to test, hone and practice their skills with this form of music. In a country the size of America, sheer numbers means that the number of good-to-great musicians doing that is going to be high. It might appear like a factory churning them out, but it is more like a simple by-product of demographics.
Whatever the explanation, for fans of the type, it is a godsend.
Okay, to the album.
The first thing to say is that if you like a lot of country in your alt.country, then this album has that going for it. There’s also rockabilly and blues, but the dominant thing to me is that pre-“Nashville Sound” Nashville sound. The guitars are clean and trebley with liberal doses of tremolo arm, the drums are all highhat and snare, and the vocal harks back to the sort of strong purity that you associate with Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and others. One thing that is missing from the traditional sound is the fiddle, and apparently that was a decision taken early in the album’s formation. It adds a spareness to the sound that is accentuated by those highly strung Fenders (if Fenders they be).
Every song is strong, but I’ll mention the three covers first. They do a version of “I’m Gonna Dress in Black” originally by Van Morrison and Them. Love it. Just a great ballad of lost love and defiant dejection. There is also the Loretta Lynn song, “The Darkest Day”, which really is a classic of the form. Somewhat surprisingly — though it fits in perfectly — they do a version of “Shakin’ All Over”, the old Johnny Kidd and the Pirates hit. It’s done pretty straight, but there is something arresting about the vocal (and therefore the point of view) being female. I guess such things are what put the alt in alt.country. For all the world, this version of “Shakin'” has me thinking of Peggy Lee doing “Fever”. And that’s a good thing.
As I say, I like the album the whole way through, but there are a couple of stand outs at this stage. The opening song, “Rain Roll In”, could’ve come straight out of a Lucinda Williams’ session around the time of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Fantastic track.
“Final Arms” dips into the blues, Chicago Blues, right down to the swirling Hammond organ, which Jewell herself plays. It’s the sort of song (in fact many of these are) that Chris Isaak would be happy to have on an album, and on one of his better days he could probably pull it off.
And then there’s the album closer, “Codeine Arms”. If you are familiar with the dark little Southern fairytales that Jolie Holland does, then you’ll have a bit of an idea of what this one is like. Actually, you could imagine Billie Holiday doing a version of this, maybe a little slower, but it would be right up her alley. I really love this song; it somehow manages to combine that minor-key haunting quality with a really catchy chorus melody that I could (and will) listen to over and over again.
So yeah, I just had to tell someone about this album. It’s a keeper. It is my introduction to her work, but there are two earlier albums out there and I won’t be hesitating in digging them out and giving them a listen too. On the strength of this, I’d be mad not to.