Gypsy (Signature Sounds/Planet)
At first glance it feels like not that much has changed for Eilen Jewell in the four years since her sixth album, Sundown Over Ghost Town (her last collection of original songs) or the two years since her seventh, Downhearted Blues (her covers set of formative songs).
Which is by no means a complaint, incidentally. Far from it.
If leaning more to the country side of her style this time, once again she’s working a rich seam of slyly rhythmic blues, ever so subtly sardonic early rock, and rootsy stuff that occasionally is touched by a drop or three of high-end rhythm and blues.
Once more her voice sounds like it is simultaneously so relaxed as to be reclining, cocking an eyebrow at our absurdities, and beckoning us with a devilish gleam in her eyes even as that visage offers midwest innocence.
In Pinto Bennett’s You Cared Enough To Lie – the one non-original here - the redoubtable Jerry Miller on electric guitar, Jason Beek on drums, Shawn Supra on upright bass and Jewell on various guitars, with prominent contributions from fiddle player Katrina Nicolayeff and pedal steel guitarist Dave Manion, effortlessly (Texas) swing, with a wry lyric offering “if you never really loved me, you cared enough to lie”. And in (the still country) These Blues, that swing shifts into a shuffle, heartache is received less buoyantly, but you’ll still want to take someone around the dancefloor.
Meanwhile Working Hard For Your Love toughens up into some blue collar blues where Jewell sounds likes she is trying to convince herself as much as the (indifferent) object of her affection, and the happier Witness is churchified pre-soul where trumpet and trombone seem to be standing in for a trio of suited men behind her doing synchronised dancing and harmonising.
We know these moves and will keep enjoying them. But look again.
Firstly, in the urban folk tremor of Who Else But You (with its nods to Karen Dalton unromanticism), the Creedence-style swampy groove and mixed emotions of Crawl, or the harder line of spare country folk in Hard Times, Jewell spreads a bit further and a bit darker. She sounds at ease with these moves though, just as the languid country soul of Miles To Go flows easily.
More strikingly, Jewell’s lyrics take on contemporary America more directly than ever before. Not necessarily with a certain president named and shamed (though when she sings about someone “grabbing us right in the meow” you don’t need the help), and not with despair as the overriding feeling (the album ends with Jewell advising us “don’t take fear to be your guide”), but certainly reflecting living in a time of ructions and uncertainty about whether to believe in a change coming.
On a practical level, 79 Cents (The Meow Song), like Margo Price’s Pay Gap, finds the persistent disparity between the wages of men and women – especially non-white women - a source of frustration and a pointer to something more rotten at the core of civil society.
On a more philosophical level the blues chug of Beat The Drum matches the doggedness of the message to fight on because “If we don’t persist, all hope will die”, while Hard Times comes from a tradition of hardscrabble folk blues, unbowed but hoping against hope for better: “hard times get away from my door …don’t want to be disgusted no more”.
So, while Jewell says at one point “we have only to bear witness, it appears”, and she’s admitted being torn between looking and looking away, she isn’t buying that line really. Not anymore.
There’s too much to just be left; there’s got to be a resistance of spirit at the very least. After all, as she tells us, “I believe in the dream”