Despite having at least 14 releases over the past 22 years and the respect of his songwriting peers, Jules Shear has remained in the murky fringes of American pop. Shear debuted in 1976 with the Funky Kings, a clunky, ill-fated shotgun wedding of Arista house writers Shear and country-schlocker Jack Tempchin brokered by label chief Clive Davis. Completely out of his element, Shear bolted, emerging two years later with Jules & The Polar Bears. Ahead (or out) of their time, the Polar Bears released two brilliant records that supported Shear’s tuneful, wordy constructs with a huge sound that forged the Kinks’ thunder and Steely Dan’s jazz-informed rock with an unmistakably Ellingtonian swing. No sale there, either.
Since the early ’80s, Shear has sporadically released ambitious pop-rock gems, collaborated with a wide variety of songwriters and, on occasion, provided acts such as the Bangles, Cyndi Lauper and Roger McGuinn with some of their finest tracks. He developed, delivered the inaugural performance of, and hosted MTV’s wildly successful “Unplugged” series. And if that landmark event inevitably launched a gaggle of emperor’s new clothes dreck, it nevertheless brought a renewed focus to unembellished songwriting, simultaneously exposing a whole generation to some of the better exponents in the field.
Between Us presents 15 new Shear-penned gems, in each case Shear’s voice and acoustic guitar paired with a sympathetic foil — 14 singers plus bassist Rob Wasserman. The result is a set of intimate, cut-glass miniatures of eloquent melodicism. “The Last In Love” embroiders a delicate Shear/Paula Cole duet with Leif Arntzen’s breathy trumpet, while a haunting accordion buoys the Rosanne Cash entry, “Who’s Dreamin’ Who”. Fellow underdogs Ron Sexsmith and Freedy Johnston weigh in impressively on “It’s All Over But The Smoke” and “Revenge”, respectively. The underrated Susan Cowsill will be a revelation to many, just as Carole King’s familiar, favorite-shirt voice will comfort. The down-home “On These Wheels Again” with Suzzy Roche is quotable from front to back, with fiddle, barking dog and David Mansfield’s resonant banjo painting the hills behind it. “Entres Nous” is a sweet instrumental interlude with Shear’s lacy guitar underpinning Wasserman’s lyrical bass.
The other tracks fall only slightly behind the pace. Between Us has raised the bar for such laid-back projects; whether or not it passes you by, it has added to Shear’s legacy as a master of American songcraft.