Music

Eilen Jewell: Sea of Tears

Ben Child

Sea of Tears is certainly worth your time and -- in this era of "free" music -- money, but the breakthrough record is still in the offing for Eilen Jewell.


Eilen Jewell

Sea of Tears

Label: Signature Sounds
US Release Date: 2009-04-21
UK Release Date: 2009-04-21
Amazon
iTunes

Having worked up a reputation as an earnest folkie the past few years, Eilen Jewell's Sea of Tears is an attempt to move beyond the identity captured on earlier records like 2006's Boundary County and 2007's Letters from Sinners and Strangers, towards a more guitar-heavy, British Invasion-based sound. (Jewell both tips her hat and shows her hand with covers of Johnny Kid and the Pirates' proto-Beat Boom hit "Shakin' All Over" and Them's "I'm Gonna Dress in Black".) Jewell's reliably-solid band, featuring some inspired guitar playing by Jerry Miller, moves with lithe confidence, and, for her part, Jewell is a excellent singer, especially apt at channeling the trembly vulnerability of a barroom chanteuse. Unfortunately, the songs don't always deserve the voice.

Critics sometimes praise Jewell for creating songs that feel familiar. If that's a virtue, it's stretched to its breaking point in several spots on Sea of Tears. "Nowhere in No Time", for instance, opens with a long string of clichés: "Well the shape I'm in / I'm a sight for sore eyes / Been wrung out and hung out / Strung out on a line". Country music depends on these kinds of common phrases but the best of country music makes us reevaluate the potential meanings of ordinary language. These songs only do that occasionally. And when "tumbleweeds they tumble" and "dust clouds roll" so earnestly, nostalgia lurks dangerously near. "One of Those Days" rhymes "rusted .44" and a "back door", and elsewhere the central props include a "shotgun", "codeine", and a "tin shack" -- this is all fine but it walks a thin line between the familiar and the obvious. In other words, these aren't the fluid blues tropes that show up in the songs of Gillian Welch and M. Ward (occasionally) or Bob Dylan (frequently), but something less substantial. Indeed, the images strain towards an effect --"authenticity", perhaps -- that remains elusive. Effect is traded for affect and, since the language lacks ballast, it too quickly loses its texture.

To a lesser extent, this same issue strains the music as well. In so carefully working to conjure up the mood of the mid-century, something vital is very nearly lost. When everything coheres, however, as it does on the title track, Jewell's vision becomes clear: all the retro energy stops servicing simulacra and acts as a map to something distinctly personal. It comes as a surprise, then, that the most memorable moment on Sea of Tears happens during a cover song, where Jewell beautifully reimagines Loretta Lynn's "The Darkest Day" as a smoky shuffle with guitar lines that straddle the Bakersfield snap of Don Rich and the funky Memphis grime of Steve Cropper.

Overall, it might be enough just to hear Jewell sing. Her clear-throated crossing of jazz phrasing and honky tonk swell is always pleasant and frequently evocative. The record may not show as many sides of the singer as she had hoped, but what we do see is plenty worthy in its own right: Sea of Tears is certainly worth your time and -- in this era of "free" music -- money, but the breakthrough record is still in the offing for Eilen Jewell.

6
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Film

Nazis, Nostalgia, and Critique in Taika Waititi's 'Jojo Rabbit'

Arriving amidst the exhaustion of the past (21st century cultural stagnation), Waititi locates a new potential object for the nostalgic gaze with Jojo Rabbit: unpleasant and traumatic events themselves.

Television

Why I Did Not Watch 'Hamilton' on Disney+

Just as Disney's Frozen appeared to deliver a message of 21st century girl power, Hamilton hypnotizes audiences with its rhyming hymn to American exceptionalism.

Music

LA Popsters Paper Jackets Deliver a Message We Should Embrace (premiere + interview)

Two days before releasing their second album, LA-based pop-rock sextet Paper Jackets present a seemingly prescient music video that finds a way to ease your pain during these hard times.

Books

'Dancing After TEN' Graphic Memoir Will Move You

Art dances with loss in the moving double-memoir by comics artists Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber, Dancing After TEN.

Music

Punk Rock's WiiRMZ Rage at the Dying of the Light on 'Faster Cheaper'

The eight songs on WiiRMZ's Faster Cheaper are like a good sock to the jaw, bone-rattling, and disorienting in their potency.

Music

Chris Stamey Paints in "A Brand-New Shade of Blue" (premiere + interview)

Chris Stamey adds more new songs for the 20th century with his latest album, finished while he was in quarantine. The material comes from an especially prolific 2019. "It's like flying a kite and also being the kite. It's a euphoric time," he says.

Music

Willie Nelson Surveys His World on 'First Rose of Spring'

Country legend Willie Nelson employs his experience on a strong set of songs to take a wide look around him.

Music

Gábor Lázár Is in Something of a Holding Pattern on 'Source'

Experimental electronic artist Gábor Lázár spins his wheels with a new album that's intermittently exciting but often lacking in variety.

Music

Margo Price Is Rumored to Be the New Stevie Nicks

Margo Price was marketed as country rock because of her rural roots. But she was always more rock than country, as one can hear on That's How Rumors Get Started.

Music

DMA'S Discuss Their Dancier New Album 'The Glow'

DMA'S lead-singer, Tommy O'Dell, discusses the band's new album The Glow, and talks about the dancier direction in their latest music.

Music

The Bacon Brothers Deliver Solemn Statement With "Corona Tune" (premiere + interview)

Written and recorded during the 2020 quarantine, "Corona Tune" exemplifies the Bacon Brothers' ability to speak to the gravity of the present moment.

Music

Garage Rockers the Bobby Lees Pay Tribute to "Wendy" (premiere)

The Bobby Lees' "Wendy" is a simmering slice of riot 'n' roll that could have come from the garage or the gutter but brims with punk attitude.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.