Eilen Jewell’s voice has always been from another era. From her earliest country folk to the country shuffles, western swing and hot club jazz that have filled out her catalog, Jewell’s often had at least one peep-toed shoe in the 1930s. Even as she added electric guitars and growling saxophones to the mix with 2009’s Sea of Tears and 2014’s Queen of the Minor Key, she retained the out-of-time otherworldliness of her vocals. Her last album, 2015’s Sundown Over Ghost Town, dialed back the jazz, rock and R&B to electric country folk that married the directness of Woody Guthrie to the choked emotion of Billie Holiday. Two years later, the blues are back, as Jewell rips through a brilliantly selected and deftly executed collection of covers.
The dozen selections here weigh towards the 1950s and 1960s, with sides drawn from the Chess, Checker, Excello, Ace, Finch and Bluesville labels. The disc opens with a killer take on Charles Sheffield’s “It’s Your Voodoo Working,” driven by the spellbinding guitar of Jerry (“Not Moby Grape’s”) Miller. The covers include singles and deep album tracks made popular by Howlin’ Wolf, Big Maybelle, Little Walter and Otis Rush, and reach back to earlier sides from Bessie Smith (“Down Hearted Blues”) and Moonshine Kate (“The Poor Girl’s Story”). This is a connoisseur’s’ selection, highlighted by a rockabilly-inflected take on Betty James “I’m a Little Mixed Up” and a smokey, Peggy Lee-styled read of Little Walter’s “Crazy Mixed Up World.”
Jewell loosens up her voice, not to a full blues shout, but with an extroverted passion that, supplemented by Miller’s wicked guitar playing and a crack rhythm section, leaps from the speakers with authority. Even when playing coy, there’s no doubt who’s in charge, and unlike idiosyncratic stylists such as Holly Golightly or Lucinda Williams, Jewell takes a lighter touch in rethinking her covers. Jewell tips her hat to the material without losing centerstage, and in doing so the album sheds new light on the songs and the singer. The diverse material, drawn from the 1920s through the 1960s, fits together into a cohesive album, aided by Miller’s range of guitar styles and a flexible rhythm section. From start to finish, this is a love letter to the blues. [©2017 Hyperbolium]