THROUGH THE LENS: Joan Shelley, Eilen Jewell, and More Upcoming Roots Music Releases
Joan Shelley - Photo by Amos Perrine
In my never-ending quest to bring Through the Lens column readers up to date on intriguing upcoming (and sometimes neglected) releases, here’s the latest edition that includes four new ones plus three reissues that cover three distinct branches of roots music. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
Joan Shelley – Like the River Loves the Sea (Aug. 30)
Living in the river town Louisville, Kentucky, where the Ohio River is at its widest, must be impactful for Shelley, as both this album and her last, 2018 EP Rivers and Vessels, include the word “river.” This time the river led her to Iceland, where she recorded yet another exquisite collection of songs that pairs the purest voice since Joan Baez with an exploration of uncertain currents. Over the past few years, and seven albums, Shelley, along with longtime guitarist Nathan Salsburg, has quietly created a genre unto herself.
In her album announcement she said that her songs invoke a “conversation with the divine that has seen all of it. … They are also a longing cry born of all the dividing; a call across the slowly spreading ocean. Primarily, [the album] is a haven for overstimulated heads in uncertain times.” To say that she and Salsburg put you in a trance is an oversimplification, but you do get lost and want to linger in a world so slip-shaped that only heaven seems to know. Thus, I cannot pick any single song to highlight, but if you are taken with “Cycle,” a Nick Drake-Sandy Denny-like floater, you’ll be as smitten as I am.
Eilen Jewell — Gypsy (Aug. 16)
For the life of me I cannot fathom why the “Queen of the Minor Key,” with a slice of honky-tonk on the side, is not a household name. From the get-go on the new album she comes on like a Texas rattlesnake in “Crawl” when she sings: “I want to crawl right out of my skin / Go back in time, cake walk in red fringe.” Others would build up to such a declaration, but Jewell wants to grab you by the lapels of your Rockmount western shirt and shake you all the way down to your Jerry Ryan cowboy boots.
Backed by her band, featuring the great Jerry Miller on lead guitar and extra special guest Katrina Nicolayeff on fiddle, Jewell transverses the darker recesses of Americana. Jewell drives it further into the bone with the Lucinda Williams-inspired “Working Hard for Your Love.” But she can also effortlessly ease into western swing on the album’s lone cover, with the tagline that incorporates its title, “If you never really loved me/ You cared enough to lie.” It’s the kind of hook Mickey Newbury would be proud of.
Beth Bombara — Evergreen (Aug. 9)
First thing you notice about Bombara is the resemblance to Aimee Mann, but instead of swimming, she takes you on a roller coaster ride. Following her last album, Map & No Direction, which her Kickstarter campaign for the new project notes was made amid depression and a struggle with confidence and purpose, Bombara retreated to a cabin in the Rocky Mountains. She was there to collect herself and regroup, not necessarily to whip up a batch of songs. Fortunately, she was able to find strength in vulnerability, and the resultant songs demonstrate that resilience.
To tell you how far Americana has seeped into the fabric of everyday life, the family-friendly Sunday newspaper insert Parade debuted “Upside Down” from the album. That song stretches out, with clangy guitars that act as a wall, a metaphysical barrier to the past behind which you can leave all your “could’ve beens” so you can get busy “going somewhere else.” In fact, many of these songs can be viewed as getting on with life after some stumbles and roadblocks, emotional or otherwise. If Bombara is working through something, she certainly has made a fine pitcher of lemonade.
We Banjo 3 – Roots to Rise Live (out now)
Hank Williams – The Complete Health & Happiness Recordings (out now)
The gold that Williams brought to roots music continues to be unearthed 65 years after his death. Here are 49 tracks from eight never-before-released live radio broadcasts from 1949, when he was at his peak. Wide Open Country premiered a real gem, “Tramp on the Street.” I dare you to have dry eyes.
Various Artists – Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection (Aug. 16)
This set includes four CDs and a book from this indie Chicago blues label of the 1950s and 1960s and features Sleepy John Estes, Andrew Williams, Earl Hooker, Hound Dog Taylor, among many others. Pop Matters premiered several tracks and you can read No Depression‘s review here.
Art Pepper – Promise Kept: The Complete Artists House Recordings (Sept. 13)
The Artist House label had a pretty good 30-year run beginning in 1977, releasing many fine artist-centric records. Among the best was saxophonist Art Pepper, whose career was on the upswing both artistically and commercially. I still have my original AH LPs, including several of Pepper’s, but this 5-CD set, which includes extra tracks, will pretty much complete my collection. While well-known and highly regarded in the jazz world, Pepper lacked the name recognition of, say, Coltrane, Getz, or Parker, but his playing has never grown stale or old. He’s a master.