Eilen Jewell can brood with the best of them. As she pushes forth her way-down-but-not-quite-out tunes on Sea Of Tears, her third album, you can just about feel the scar tissue that has built up around her heart. You can almost see the fog rolling in around her.
Jewell evokes the same knowingly dolorous spirit as contemporaries Madeleine Peyroux or Jolie Holland as well as her obvious vocal influences Loretta Lynn and Billie Holiday. With her casual, along-for-the-ride delivery, Jewell convincingly conveys heartbreak and disappointment as routine and expected parts of her day. That makes this collection of songs all the more sad.
This comes across clearly on “Rain Roll In”, the catchiest and prettiest tune on the album, featuring vocal harmonies – a rarity on this disc – from drummer Jason Beek and achingly lovely guitar parts by Jerry Miller. But at its core, the song is about someone looking ahead to her death and accepting her unremarkable life for what it is. Pretty stark stuff.
“Fading Memory” is a more classic end-of-relationship song, soaked in pain and tremolo guitar and done over waltz time. “I’ll never love like I did before/Don’t call my name no more,” a clearly bruised Jewell sings with what little defiance she can still muster.
Musically, this album is a departure for Jewell. Though she has maintained the core of her longtime band, she has scaled back the instrumentation and stripped away much of the country-folkiness from past efforts. The streamlined approach allows Miller’s strange guitar blend of rockabilly, soul and surf – imagine Dick Dale at Sun Studio for some Stax sessions – to meander, sometimes a bit too much.