Eilen Jewell Marries Personal and Political on Guitar-Driven, Eclectic ‘Gypsy’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

One of many appealing aspects of Idaho-based Eilen Jewell’s music across her previous seven albums has been the great guitar work of Jerry Miller.  This, her eighth album, and first in four years, Gypsy, is perhaps the most guitar-centric of any of them because for the first time Jewel plugged in too. It also marks the first time that Jewel has taken on political commentary in her songs. Few artists can resist that these days, given our current climate. As fans know, Jewel runs the gamut from country-rock to gut-bucket blues. She can be both old-timey and contemporary. She’s a master at bringing polar opposites into a cohesive statement. The tension that lives in her songs and album sequences usually ends with a blissful takeaway and, despite a few new twists, the same is true here.

Consider the opener “Crawl” with these lyrics – “I want to crawl right out of my skin/Go back in time, cake walk in red fringe/I want solitude, don’t want to be alone/Want to put down roots, want to be a rolling stone.”  If that doesn’t speak to polarity, then few songs do. It becomes a theme of sorts – the tug-or-war of life. It’s a song she’s been working on for eight years and a relief to finally get it on record. But, as we’ve come to expect from Jewell, the modes and thought patterns of her songs are varied. Her unpredictability is clearly a major strength. “Witness” is the opposite. There is no angst or polarity, just the joy of appreciating nature from an Idaho cabin in moments of peace.

She does get agitated too. “79 Cents (The Meow Song)” takes on sexism and discrimination with purposeful humor while the fiddle-infused “Beat the Drum” is a rallying cry to those trying to maintain hope against the adversity faced in these times. Jewell learned quickly that an artist of her stature can raise eyebrows when speaking up, perhaps mainly because she’s never been associated with socio-political causes. She spoke up casually about POTUS 45 in a recent interview and received backlash from both sides, responding, “I don’t see politics as separate from the rest of life. They’re intertwined. This is personal, especially in the past few years.”

The country material is exemplified, ironically by “These Blues,” the laid back feel of “Miles to Go” and the title track;  and directly in “You Cared Enough to Lie,” the lone cover written by Idaho legend Pinto Bennett. It’s a nod to the many nights she and her husband, drummer Jason Beek, would go to an Idaho dive bar to hear Pinto play. Eventually, Beek produced Nashville veteran Pinto’s latest album, The Last Saturday Night, with Jewel on backing vocals.

Guitar fans will be drawn to  “Crawl,” “Working Hard for Your Love,” showcases for Miller and in similar mode “Hard Times,” a takeoff on the iconic song “Hard Times Come Again No More.” Throughout her versatile road-tested quartet, including the not yet mentioned upright bassist Shawn Supra, plays brilliantly and in support of the song. This time, though she adds additional textures with guests on horns, pedal steel, keyboards and several on background vocals. It’s a bigger sound on some tunes than on past efforts. 

Jewell has earned the nickname Queen of the Minor Key. The Queen continues to reign with one of her strongest albums yet.

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