The best Americana album so far this year.
Summer is humbling in my hometown, Washington, D.C., reminding residents that the Capital of the Free World is really just a Southern swamp with delusions of grandeur. It's my favorite time of year. When just breathing makes Washingtonians break into a sweat, even these workaholics remember that biology trumps obligation. Eilen Jewell's new CD, Letters from Sinners and Strangers, arrived at my door on the first hot weekend of the summer. And, like the strawberries local farmers had begun trucking into town, it perfectly captures the sweet languor and lusty restlessness of sultry Southern summertime. The record is the second from Eilen (rhymes with feelin'), following her 2005 self-released debut, Boundary Country. That album would have been her second, but her nearly completed first attempt at a full-length was lost in a studio fire in 2003.
I was surprised to learn that Jewell is an Idaho native living in Boston. But clearly her ears have spent a lot of time with music from hot places recorded in the days before air conditioning. Her songs -- several of which Jewell penned herself -- draw on the imagery of the '20s and '30s, with occasional forays into the '50s. And her band -- lead guitarist Jerry Miller, Johnny Sciascia on upright bass, and drummer Jason Beek -- brilliantly mixes the sounds of those decades while recognizing the intervening years. At heart, they are a small Western Swing combo, but they're as much at home with Bob Dylan's rambling song "Walking Down the Line" as they are playing Charlie Rich's country classic "Thanks a Lot", the Western swing "Heartache Boulevard", or the speakeasy number, "High Shelf Blues".
When the tunes move to a more urban setting, as in "Too Hot to Sleep", Miller pours on reverb like the hot blanket of a humid sundown. At times, he throws in some licks borrowed from surf guitar god Dick Dale. "Dusty Boxcar Wall" offers an intriguing alternative history of American music: Dale travels back in time to the 1930s in order to trade in the sands of California beaches for the Oklahoma Dust Bowl.
Eilen Jewell's voice has been compared to Gillian Welch's and Norah Jones'. She walks that line between jazzy and old-timey, eschewing brassy or nasal in favor of lithe and airy. In these well-crafted mixes, Jewell's voice floats above the band as if avoiding contact because it's too hot to touch. It's a sound that is as intoxicating as a summer afternoon, and will linger in your memory just as long.