Genre-blending Eilen Jewell plays The Ark this weekend
photo by Jennifer Lucey-Brzoza
Eilen Jewell is one of those strikingly talented singer-songwriters who’s built up a devoted cult following over the last few years — but has thus far managed to evade the radar of the mainstream.
That could change, however, if she continues to explore the grittier and more rocking sounds on her latest album, “Sea of Tears.” If that happens, casual listeners might even pronounce her first name correctly — it’s pronounced EE-lin (rhymes with “feelin’”).
Previously, the music created by Jewell and her crack band was a country-folk / Western-swing hybrid, punctuated by some rockabilly and jazzy flourishes, and the band included a fiddler. On “Sea of Tears,” however, she and the boys conjure some of their other influences — vintage R&B, early Brit-Invasion, garage rock and Chicago blues. They also ramp up the rockabilly twang, and guitarist Jerry Miller isn’t shy about unfurling some surf-guitar reverb effects.
But it’s all done in fairly subtle fashion. Miller has amazing chops, but he and the rest of the band play with a restraint that befits Jewell’s often-brooding but also cathartic songs about heartache, abandonment, denial, loss and mortality. And Jewell’s voice is a supple and smoky instrument that languorously draws you in, and alternately evokes such sultry-cool singers as Billie Holiday, Loretta Lynn, the Cowboy Junkies’ Margo Timmins and Madeleine Peyroux. Listen to Eilen Jewell "Rain Roll In" (MP3).
“I started out really loving early rock ‘n’ roll, before I got into folk and country and blues, but I never really explored that side of me on my records prior to ‘Sea of Tears’,” says Jewell, who comes to The Ark with her band on Saturday. “I know a lot of people in the folk music or roots music world who see rock ‘n’ roll as being something different, something that is separate from folk or roots styles — but on this record, I wanted to approach rock ‘n’ roll as just another form of roots music, which is what I think it is.”
Jewell doesn’t have much interest in trying to categorize her music, or stick to a single genre. “I’m terrible with genres, which is why my albums have sometimes confused people a bit. One thing I have heard is that my music ‘goes all over the place,’ because it has some country, and some blues, and some swing, and some folk. But, to me, I don’t really see them as distinct. I love them all equally — they all seem connected to me.”
Of course, most listeners don’t listen to just one style of music, so most of the people who complain bout an artist who’s not easily categorized are those who work for big record companies or commercial radio stations — entities that are well-known for their rigidity and myopia.
One impetus for Jewell digging into vintage rock and R&B sounds on “Sea of Tears” was the stack of CDs that her bandmates brought along while on their previous tour. “We listened to bands like Them, the Kinks, the Animals, the Zombies, and some compilations, like that ‘Nuggets’ garage rock compilation,” says Jewell during an interview from her home in Boston.
Tapping into some of these styles also altered her songwriting approach. “I think by being immersed in these styles, it encouraged me to write more simply, to use more simple and direct language,” she says. “A lot of what I love about garage rock or early rock ‘n’ roll is that the chords are simple, and the music is very immediate and raw — which is also one of the things I like about early country music.
“In fact, that’s true in general, I think — in the ‘early’ forms of many music styles, there is a simplicity, but as the years went on they became more produced, and there were more key changes ..But I like being able to hear the spaces between the notes.”
You can definitely hear the spaces between the notes on “Sea of Tears.” Miller’s sometimes haunting guitar tone is reminiscent of Jimmy Wilsey’s — who was Chris Isaak’s guitarist in the early days. So he’s often more interested in setting a mood or creating atmosphere — although he can certainly let ‘er rip when something gnarlier is called for.
In addition to Jewell’s own oft-introspective songs, the album includes some inspired covers. One great one is a version of “Shakin’ All Over.” But, given their interest in early rock / early Brit-Invasion sounds, Jewell and her band play it in a way that is closer to the original, by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates — as opposed to the gleefully pulverizing treatment it got from the Who on “Live at Leeds.” Except that Jewell’s insinuating vocals make it much more seductive — yet simultaneously more ominous — than the original.
Eilen Jewell performing “Shakin’ All Over” live earlier this month:
“Everybody knows the Who’s version, which is so intense, so when I first heard the original, I was surprised that it had this rockabilly / country kind of sound,” says the soft-spoken Jewell. “So it was exciting to return it to its roots. I wanted to highlight the fact that classic rock — the rock ‘n’ roll of the ‘70s — also has its roots in the same thing as every other style of American music, if you take it back far enough.”
Another enticing cover on the album is a moody and atmospheric rendition of “I’m Gonna Dress in Black,” originally recorded by Them in 1965, that will stick with you for long after the song is over. And, being the huge Loretta Lynn fan that she is, she couldn’t resist including a cover of Lynn’s “The Darkest Day,” a classic honky-tonk shuffle.
In fact, the group members have a side project — a band they call Butcher Holler — that exclusively performs Lynn songs. “It’s something we do for fun in the Boston area, when we start to miss the bars we played in when we were starting out.” And in July, Butcher Holler will release a Lynn tribute album, consisting entirely of songs that Lynn wrote herself.
“We love playing her music,” says Jewell. “Jerry plays pedal steel as well as guitar, and it’s just really a lot of fun to play those songs, because Loretta is such a big hero of ours.”
Kevin Ransom is a free-lance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at KevinRansom10@aol.com.