On 2005's Boundary County and its 2007 follow-up, Letter from Sinners & Strangers, Boston singer Eilen Jewell offered a sound and approach that recalled Emmylou Harris at her most retro, John Prine at his most folk-ish, and Bessie Smith, well, just being Bessie Smith. Vintage was the order of the day, and when Jewell sang about high-shelf booze, you thought about wood-paneled saloons, not gleaming nightclubs.
"I just like [vintage music] better than the stuff that's happening today, which to me has a soulless, commercial sound," she says. "Music from the '60s and earlier all sounds to me like real people playing real instruments, as opposed to engineers and producers tweaking dials and knobs. To me, less-produced music is more effective. It hits me deeper."
Jewell's latest, Sea of Love, invokes more rock 'n' roll than those past titles, but—while the backbeat might be crisper and there's more opportunity for ace guitarist Jerry Miller to strut his stuff a little louder—it doesn't come at the cost of soulfulness or as the product of a turned dial. After all, the things that first attracted folks to Jewell—sultry singing, good stories, interesting arrangements—remain firm.
"The shift is not dramatic in my eyes because I've always had these sounds in the back of my mind," says Jewell. "But I suppose there are plenty of people who'll say, 'But that's not folk music!' I guess I just don't see that distinct division of genres as clearly as some people do. To me, there are two kinds of music: the music I don't love and the music I do love."
And it turns out that early rock 'n' roll has quite the foothold in the "Do Love category." Sea of Love holds covers of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates' "Shakin' All Over" and Them's "I'm Gonna Dress in Black" on the new record. But the love goes well beyond that. Jewell gladly—we might even go as far as gleefully—offered a list of her favorite rock songs. Here are some of the numbers that help keep it real for her:
"96 TEARS," QUESTION MARK AND MYSTERIANS: The melodramatic lyrics are wonderful, and the awesome but simple organ riff that gets repeated throughout the song is addictive.
"HERE COMES THE NIGHT," THEM: Van Morrison's voice is so heavy, especially in this one. And I love how it shifts between two different rhythm parts.
"BE MY BABY," THE RONETTES: Girl groups are the bomb.
"TILL THE END OF THE DAY," THE KINKS: Everything about this one is amazing. I love how, in this era of rock 'n' roll, groups almost always had harmony vocals that added to the raucousness and somehow avoided sounding pretty or clean.
"HAVE LOVE WILL TRAVEL," THE SONICS: The guitar riff is fabulous, and Gerry Rosalie could sing his lungs out. Also, the saxophone solo. Need I say more?
"PAINT IT BLACK," THE ROLLING STONES: Honestly, I love anything by the Stones. Everything they do sounds so loose and yet spot-on.
"NOT FADE AWAY," BUDDY HOLLY: A lot of people have covered this one, but I still like the original Buddy version the best. It's got the Bo Diddley beat to it, another one of my favorite artists.
"MAYBELLENE," CHUCK BERRY: This song is infectious, as was everything Chuck Berry did.
"SEND ME SOME LOVIN'," LITTLE RICHARD: His voice was otherworldly!
"TIME OF THE SEASON," THE ZOMBIES: It's all about the syncopated beat and that crazy breath sound.
Eilen Jewell brings her big rock 'n' roll extravaganza (OK, OK, that's an overstatement) to the Berkeley Cafe Sunday, May 10. Tickets are $10, and the show starts at 8 p.m.