Eilen Jewell’s new CD ‘Sundown Over Ghost Town’ tells of new beginnings with nods to the past
Eilen Jewell can sing with swagger or sweetness, and she can write with muscle and delicacy. Since bursting on the roots music scene in 2005, Eilen (“rhymes with stealin’,” she’s quipped) Jewell has released six acclaimed albums under her own name and been a driving force in two CDs by the gospel music-inspired group the Sacred Shakers. This week, Signature Sounds released “Sundown Over Ghost Town,” Jewell’s much-anticipated seventh record and first studio album since 2011’s “Queen of the Minor Key.”
Although she wasnt logging heavy studio hours since recording “Queen,” it’s been a busy time for Jewell.
“In the past three years I’ve moved from Boston back home to Boise and have become a mother,” she said last week. “These two big events have changed everything about my life.
“As my life changes, I change as a person, and consequently my music changes too. It has become more personal, more focused on my own true stories as opposed to those of fictional characters.
“These songs mean more to me than previous ones.”
While Jewell’s first six albums have an air of elegant dissipation and late nights spent in speakeasies and clubs, “Sundown Over Ghost Town” reflects the spaciousness of her native Idaho and Jewell’s delight in returning. Instead of songs populated by characters living in dimly-lit rooms, “Sundown” carries the intimacy and freedom of walking under star-strewn western skies.
Although a sense of the importance of returning to Idaho pervades “Sundown,” Jewell says that she didn’t “set out in any particular direction.”
“I try to avoid doing that, in general,” she explained. “I want the songs to be free to go in whatever direction they need to go in. It wasn’t until after they were all written and recorded that I realized that so many of them are about returning home.
“After the album was finished, and I saw that all the songs were so full of western imagery, I wanted the title to reflect that,” Jewell said. “When I think of the West, I think of ghost towns and sunsets. For me, those two things evoke that certain quality of light, the vastness and the solitude that are at the core of life out here.”
Listening to “Sundown Over Ghost Town” feels akin to being taken on an eloquently idiosyncratic tour of cherished aspects of a friend’s hometown. Rather than visitors’ bureau-style audio postcards – indeed, neither Boise nor even Idaho are mentioned by name – Jewell opts instead for individualized sketches of places and memories. An unnamed cave explored as a teenager, a particular place amongst the pines she gravitated toward as a child, a kid’s-eye view of a summer neighborhood and a grittier portrait of a small town all populate the album, along with low-angle sunlight and the colder light of stars. The effect is personal and specific but, due to Jewell’s deft writing and delivery, welcomes rather than excludes the listener.
Jewell’s sense of place is so strong on this album that it obliquely flavors the song she wrote for her infant daughter. In that way, album-closing “Songbird” subtly combines the two big changes in her life.
Jewell’s warmly languid and occasionally wistful vocals are a hallmark of her music. There is silk and denim in her voice, and calm assurance with a hint of playful sass. She bends and slides some notes, hooking the listener without irony or artifice.
Jewell’s band provides an evocative web of music woven around her voice and songs. Jerry Miller’s electric guitar has guts and shine, drummer (and Jewell’s husband) Jason Beek plays with propulsive power and a satin shimmer, and bassist Johnny Sciascia lays down an atmospheric foundation. (Shawn Supra is Jewell’s current bassist after Sciascia’s recent decision to decrease his touring.) Jewell’s acoustic guitar and harmonica and Beek’s intuitive harmony vocals round out the sound.
And, drawing on vintage country and early blues, rockabilly and folk, it’s a sound that’s hard to define. Jewell recognizes that it’s difficult to shoehorn all of her songs into one genre. Just run with the broad brush of Americana, or…?
“Hillbilly surf-noir” comes her more flavorful suggestion.
Eilen Jewell is currently touring in support of “Sundown Over Ghost Town.” For more information, see eilenjewell.com and the venues’ websites.
Eilen Jewell’s up-coming West Coast CD release shows:
May 28: Winters, CA – The Palms Playhouse (Caitlin Canty opens)
May 29: Berkeley, CA – The Freight & Salvage (Caitlin Canty opens)
May 30: Santa Cruz, CA – Kuumbwa Jazz Center
June 10: Portland, OR – Alberta Rose Theater
June 11: Seattle, WA – Tractor Tavern
June 12: Palmer, AK – Palmer Musk Ox Farm
June 13: Soldotna, AK – Kenai River Festival