According to the title song, on the day Eilen Jewell was born, a gypsy told her mother that Jewell would be the “Queen of the Minor Key”. That’s a honky-tonk queen a la Kitty Wells or perhaps Shel Silverstein’s “Queen of the Silver Dollar” type of country bar room royalty. Jewell sings about her fate over a romping rockabilly beat that indicates this while she may be the “queen of melancholy”, this ain’t no sad song. Jewell’s having a ball ruling over the empire of “empty glasses and broken hearts”. It’s good to be queen.
And while Jewell may piss and moan about love, life, and places called home, she knows that’s all part of living. Her music conveys the sneering edge of danger. She employs musical styles rooted in ‘50s America, but this isn’t some retro trip down nostalgia lane. It’s where the hillbilly south, urban ethnic working class, and Southwestern badass meet, expressed in the visual styles of car culture, beehives, and cholo. It’s a journey to the era of when mental asylums used to do electro-shock and lobotomies as a matter of course to those who did not conform. Being a rebel means taking real risks.
Jewell sets the mood before she even sings a note. The instrumental “Radio City” opens the disc with a blistering vibe full of hot rods and small deserted towns. It’s as far away from Rockefeller Center as you can get. The glare of the sun and the empty landscape make Nowheresville, U.S.A. the center of action. Hop in, bub, it’s gonna be a long ride.
The story behind the record goes something like this: Jewell had writer’s block, so she retreated to a cabin without electricity and running water in the mountains of Idaho. The Boston resident Jewell originally hailed from the land of Famous Potatoes, but instead of digging up tubers, she found gold from a previous decade of American life. This might not make sense, but who cares?
Much of the credit belongs to the band. Johnny Sciasa’s throbbing upright bass and Jason Beek’s skittish drums could make Tiny Tim sound like Johnny Cash. Jerry Miller’s command of electric, acoustic, and steel guitars allows him to rock out or create spectral atmospherics as needed. Jewell plays acoustic guitar and harmonica, and there are great special contributions by David Sholl (tenor and baritone saxophones), Tom West (organ), Rich Dubois (fiddle), Big Sandy and Zoe Muth (vocals).
The album is definitely cool, whether Jewell’s channeling Patsy Cline on the torch song “Only One” or getting all hopped up as on the rhythm and blues honker “Bang Bang Bang”. Jewell also has a sense of humor. On the aforementioned song, she describes cupid as a sinister seraph who doesn’t take aim with a bow and arrow but just shoots his sawed off six-gauge shotgun and blindly blasts love into a crowd of people. “It’s funny until it happens to you”, she warns, “because love is careless, random, and cruel”. Just thinking about love this way makes a person thirsty. Here, have some “Kalimotxo”.
For the uninitiated, Kalimotxo is red wine and cola, a cheap drink for those who only have one aim, getting drunk. Jewell’s mostly instrumental number by that name rivals The Champs’ “Tequila” in its vivacity. She seductively drawls the word “Kalimtoxo” three times during the song, inviting the listener to a pleasure that will certainly leave one with a headache and sore stomach in the morning if one imbibes too much.
The variety of the material here ensures that one won’t get sick of Jewell. Instead, as she sings on another song, one will become “Hooked”. Don’t be afraid of getting caught. She’s got the (minor) key to get you out.