Sea of Tears
The songs on Eilen Jewell’s third record, Sea of Tears, (Signature Sounds 2009) could be coming out of a radio in the early 60’s, and if they were, no one hearing them then would be especially jarred or surprised, no one would guess they were being played by musicians from a future time. These songs all reside comfortably in our near past, yet wander a ghostly trail through it. It's as if in visiting this terrain, Jewell seeks solace from a simpler era, but once there finds things just as emotionally complex as the present, just as fraught with the hazards of the human condition. Or as someone once said, “Wherever you go, there you are.”
Jewell, who is Boise born and Boston based, uses her long time, excellent band here – Jason Beek (drums, harmony vocals), Johnny Sciascia (upright bass), and Jerry Miller (electric, acoustic, and steel guitars). They recreate 60’s sounds with a pre-digital clarity authentic to those times. This is a record full of open space and air, like Sun and Chess recordings, as well as other 60’s records where the studio had only four tracks available, so they used them wisely. Sea of Tears captures both the country twang of singers like Loretta Lynn, as well as the musical signatures of British invasion records, tremolo guitars and six string arpeggios.
“Rain Roll In,” opens the record with a jangly twelve string playing over Jewell’s melancholy vocals – “There’s only one constant in this old world, and that’s nothing ever stays the same…” Jewell’s velvety voice is all ache and honey – smooth, soulful, stoic and strong, but ready to break down any second to cry. Which isn’t about weakness, but rather the opposite – the ability to shed her cosmic blues through tears and start all over again.
“Fading Memory” evokes Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love is,” with Jerry Miller’s guitar echoing Keith Richard’s solo in The Stones “Time is on My Side.” This, in a song where the singer insists that she’s never going back to him, no matter how long he waits. These kind of musical juxtapositions, paradoxes and free associations flow all through Sea of Tears.
In “Shakin’ All Over,” Jewell takes the famous Johnny Kidd and the Pirates tune and sings it with a reserve that’s in contrast to the sentiment of the lyrics, and Jewell becomes the archetypal shy girl, downcast eyes but smoldering inside. “I’m Gonna Dress in Black” is a nugget recorded by Van Morrison and Them. The guitar figure the band plays is lifted from “House of the Rising Sun” and the song has a similar story – this time the singer has gone to the city, where she was betrayed by a man who took her money, left her with nothing. She’s going back to her old tin shack in Georgia to live out her days in remorse, dressed in black. It perfectly evokes the Animals song, crossing genres – country and early 60’s rock, in the same way.
“One of Those Days” conjures up a desolate physical and emotional landscape, a woman done wrong song, sitting alone with her rusted 44 on her man’s back porch, waiting for his return. A genuinely spooky murder song with the sparse, poetic lines, “Well the only thing that moves, is the laundry on the line, and a dusty dog that bites, just to kill the time…”
Eilen Jewell's chartreuse voice at times has a touch of Billie Holiday, and the same sweet pain Billie sang of weaves its way through all of these songs, the automatic blues of being human. Jewell sings, “No one ever said it would always be good, and if they did, they were just wrong. I’ve loved it all and I’ll miss it when I’m gone, my life’s been my art and I’ve told it in my song…” A courageous statement, a simple truth sung in her plaintive voice, at once redemptive and healing in the midst of its resignation. Sea of Tears accomplishes this throughout, addressing permanent truths and soothing the deepest hurts of the heart. When you’re finished listening, you might need to hear it again, and again… depending how deep your ache is. One thing's for certain - you'll feel renewed when it's done.