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Down Hearted Blues (Signature Sounds)

Oddly, given she is a good songwriter and not shy of tapping into her own stories (see her last album, Sundown Over Ghost Town) some of the signature moments of Eilen Jewell’s career have been with other people’s music.

Or maybe another way to see it is if you want to know what has fed into her original albums Boundary Country, Letters From Sinners & Strangers, Sea Of Tears, Queen Of The Minor Key and Sundown Over Ghost Town, you can look at the tentpole covers albums.

There was the fabulously joyful mountain music/white gospel self-titled album by the Boston-based group of musicians under the name The Sacred Shakers, and the tribute to Loretta Lynn, Butcher Holler, both of which were able to reignite an interest in the originals while showing how Jewell had a deep grasp of past principles.

And now there’s this collection of blues and proto-rhythm’n’blues songs once performed by some well-remembered (Willie Dixon, Memphis Minnie) and some not so well-remembered (Charles Sheffield, Betty James) names.

Though Jewell says she was reluctant to make a blues album, essentially on the “I am not worthy” basis, the truth is it is a natural fit, more so even than the Lynn album. And it might all be down to suggestiveness.

While looking like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth and having a voice which would never be used to holler for anything, Jewell is a cracker at conveying what Frankie Howerd might have called sauciness.

For example, in vocals and rhythm, Jewell – with drummer husband Jason Beek and guitarist Jerry Miller in particular – gets across a very knowing take on sex that suggests almost everything without having to say anything that could be pinned down as racy.

Same goes for drinking. And fighting. And general bad behaviour.

That smiling plausible deniability is itself part of the appeal: the humour in her voice as much as in the songs highlights how she brings wit to everything.

It’s all on display on Down Hearted Blues – which aren’t really downhearted, or certainly not confined to downhearted – from the opening song onwards.

In It’s Your Voodoo Working Miller chops up a guitar line while Jewell semi-innocently says “I fell in love with your body and soul” and then slides in with “my hand’s still sticky and my head’s ice-cold” as the swing builds in suggestion. And the woman singing in Don’t Leave Poor Me is begging but not completely out of desperation because you can tell there’s a good (or maybe inappropriate) reason to keep this man nearby.

But then in the title track she has a little wobble in her voice that is pure wax cylinder-in-a-Memphis-hotel-room, as Shawn Supra on wiggles his shoulders, while Crazy Mixed Up World has a light touch that suggests being crazy or mixed up is hardly the worst thing for a world, as a sardonic guitar emphasises.

In Another Night To Cry, a relaxed Jewell drawls across a lightly pricking guitar and brushes, and the chugging beat of Walking With Frankie is contrasted with a similarly relaxed delivery, while in You Gonna Miss Me the slow burn blues shape lays a sultry feel over which she only needs to lay out the truth rather than lay on the emotion, leaving that emotion to seep out in the torched You Know My Love.

Whether it’s the quick shuffle of You’ll Be Mine, the string band-like The Poor Girls’ Story or the strollin’ Nothing In Rambling, Jewell and band come at it easily, letting the subtext emerge in its own time.

That’s pretty much the form for a nice, relaxed, insinuating collection.

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