Queen of the Minor Key / Eilen Jewell
review by Will Brennan
Eilen Jewell’s “Queen of the Minor Key” conjures up a timeless nether land of pathos and woe, a haunted landscape where the past and present conflate and obfuscate whatever reality is. Or was. Jewell takes her own emotional present and puts it into songs created in musical settings from a past she was too young to know when they were new, but clearly loves. From the opening 60’s tremolo surf guitar and yakety-sax of the instrumental Radio City, we’re back in time before the Beatles, when life was simpler, but it’s such a spooky sound, you know this isn’t about any kind of nostalgia, it’s about Jewell submerging herself into a landscape that captures her imagination, a place where she can conjure up whatever moods she wants. In the lyrics of the next song, “I Remember You,” her purpose starts becoming clearer.
I remember you, you were locked in a padded room, I tried to teach you solitaire, you hollered at the moon…
Unlike the two other well known songs called “I Remember You,” Frank Ifeild’s and Bob Dylan’s, which were both sentimental remembrances, Jewell isn’t remembering fondly, she’s looking at a troubled past relationship, that nonetheless was vivid and memorable, and recasting it in stark symbolism and surreal imagery. Her lyrics are direct and perfectly composed, as can be seen by the internal rhyming vowel sounds of solitaire/hollered at, and the wonderful following couplet that creates a carnival like image of a carney sharpshooter, or maybe a hint at the lure of danger, the possible tragic consequences, as in William Burrough’s trick shooting episode that killed his wife.
I remember you, I taught you how to kiss, I let you shoot my hats off, ‘cause I knew you wouldn’t miss…
In the title song, she puts herself in an authentic sounding, old time rockabilly setting, singing the record’s constant theme, in the chorus,
“I’m the queen of the lonely tunes, queen of the high shelf booze, the queen of the melancholy, the queen of the minor key.”
Trying to pull off this kind of old timey effect might not work and could come off sounding like a cheap novelty if it weren’t for Jewell’s excellent, simpatico band – husband Jason Beek on drums, Jerry Miller on guitars and John Sciascia on upright bass. They play this stuff like Jewell drove into a circa 50’s honky-tonk in Lubbock, saw them and said “Jump in the back of the truck boys… we got playin’ to do.” What Tom Waits talks about in his song, “That Feel,” this band’s got it. As far as Jewell’s sweet and bitter country tinged vocals, they’re always polished to a sheen and perfectly controlled, and that’s never a bad thing. She just doesn’t care to show off, she doesn’t have to – there’s an elastic quality to her voice that can caress words – she conveys more in a heartfelt phrase than ten histrionic high note country wailers could ever hope to do.
The record isn’t all dark moods, there’s the humorous, though still edgy and odd “Bang Bang Bang,” about cupid hanging out at a gun show and shooting the crowd, who all fall into love with whoever they’re near, like the bewitched Titania falling for the donkey-headed Bottom in Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Falling in love is, by nature, a way being that’s as foolish as it gets, in other words.
“I asked him if the gun had a sight, how can you hit the mark that way, little cupid, he just laughed outright, he said I don’t take aim I just bang bang bang. … love is careless, random and cruel, he don’t take aim, he just bang bang bang.”
On “Hooked,” Jewell happily gives in to the addiction of the love she’s feeling, with David Scholl’s sax and Miller’s guitar taking the song into “Love Potion Number 9” territory. “Long Road,” her duet with Big Sandy of Big Sandy and His Fly Rite Boys, is a perfect ‘on the road away from home’ country song that could have been sung by Patsy Cline, and with Jerry Miller’s impeccable Telecaster and pedal steel guitar licks, it sounds like the song could have been plucked straight out of that time. The record closes with Kalimotxo, another instrumental throw back to the early 60’s, with one word to the whole song, Jewell breath-singing ‘Kalimotxo’ right after the tremolo bar guitar.
Eilen Jewell continues to explore these sounds from the past, like she did on “Sea of Tears,” with the same kind of authenticity that Gilliam Welch and David Rawlings display on their recordings. Jewell is the kind of artist that will be able to mine these and other musical landscapes for as long as she wishes, constantly discovering new facets to old diamonds. From beginning to end, Queen of the Minor Key is a dusky, brilliant, polished gem.