Dec
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Album Review – Eilen Jewell “Queen of the Minor Key”

December 3, 2011 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  6 Comments

In an attempt to clear the backlog of 2011 albums worthy of review I come to Eilen Jewell and her fourth long player Queen of the Minor Key. Before we get too far, I’ll reveal that my take on this album is somewhat contrary from the others you will find. Many folks will preach to you how this is one of the standouts in the roots world for 2011, and though I like this album and it has some great elements, I find myself in a position I never enjoy: attempting to balance the hype.

For those not familiar with Queen Jewell, first and foremost she’s a singer/songwriter. In the same mold as Big Sandy and Wayne “The Train” Hancock, she bridges many elements of American music: country, swing, jazz, rockabilly, by not taking those older art forms and melding them together, but traveling back to a time when all these specifics genres were still forming, and the differences between them were still relatively obscure.

This album has a super hit on it in the form of the “Queen of the Minor Key” title track, and this will be Eilen’s signature song from henceforth, and it should be because it’s an example of master song craft. However I think this is also one of the elements of this album that sucks people in and allows them to gloss over the album’s shortcomings, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The song is so good, it’s goodness bleeds over to the other tracks.

The other top notch element to the album is the big body Gretsch guitar work of Jerry Miller. When I saw Eilen play live this summer at the Pickathon Festival, I called Jerry Miller the best player I saw all weekend in regards to taste, and there a chance he’s one of the best guitar players I’ve seen all year. His work on Queen is extraordinaire, and the same can be said for all the contributors, including singers Zoe Muth and Big Sandy who both appear on the album.

Jerry Miller’s talent level is so domineering though, it diffuses the attention from Eilen, where it should be. It almost becomes one of those situations where he’s so good, for the greater good of the music it may be necessary to reel him in, cut his solos shorter so the focus of the music doesn’t get blurred. If the name of this band was something else, and Eilen Jewell just happened to be the singer, or even if you called it “The Eilen Jewell Band,” this transgression might be more easily overlooked. Wayne Hancock had a hot shot telecaster player for years named Eddie Biebel, possibly the best to ever play that position, but you never went just to see Eddie, you went to see Wayne, with Eddie on guitar.

The other thing that bothers me with this album is that it is steeped a little too much in anachronistic language and modes. Good neotraditionalist artists know how to pay forward traditions and styles, but still make sure the music and message is germane to modern day. I’m not sure if Eilen always pulls this off in Queen. With songs like “Band Bang Bang” and “I Remember You,” they sound a little too close for comfort to songs that would’ve been played back in the day, rather than songs with roots from back in the day, but still interpreted with a relevant feel. At some point a feeling of hokey-ness can set in and distract from what overall is Eilen’s good songwriting, and excellent arrangement and instrumentation.

In the end, I just want more from Eilen Jewell. Her singing is good, but she never really lets it fly. Playing live, most of the time she is just shaking a tambourine or maracas, and waiting for the guitar solo to end to eep out the chorus. And one of the reasons I want more from her is because I know what she’s capable of, from songs like “Queen of the Minor Key” and some of her previous work. There’s too much Norah Jones here, too much safety.

Please don’t misunderstand, I like this album and Eilen Jewell. If you want glowing reviews for this album, just hit up Mr. Google and you can find reams of them. And my motivation here is not to turn anyone off if they already think this album is great. Heavens knows, its hard to find music that really speaks to you these days, and it’s not my place to make any one second guess their Eilen Jewell passion. What it is my job to do is to give my honest opinion, which is that this album features an excellent song, and damn fine guitar player, good songs and arrangement, and is better than most albums you’ll find out there. It’s just not the best.

But listen below and judge for yourself.

1 1/2 of 2 guns up.

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Queen of the Minor Key on Cd or LP from Eilen Jewell

Preview & Purchase Tracks from Amazon

6 Comments to “Album Review – Eilen Jewell “Queen of the Minor Key””

  • As an Eilen Jewell fan, I’d say this is a very good but not great album. I prefer her 2009 release Sea of Tears. Stronger set of strongs. Great cover of Shakin’ All Over.

    I’d read that prior to recording Queen of the Minor Key, she went back to her native Idaho to get through a case of writer’s block and the result was this set of songs.

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    • I always find the methodology of how songwriters write songs interesting. Each writer has to find their best method, but the isolation method has always puzzled me a little bit. If you go in it with ideas, you just need to flesh them out and get away from distraction, I can understand that. But if you do into it with no ideas, I think that puts a lot of pressure on you to come up with something: Here you are in the middle of nowhere, you’ve married yourself to this method and it needs to pay off. It doesn’t seem like a very organic situation.

      I also don’t understand this modern idea of needing to put out an album, to put out an album. There’s plenty of music out there. Better to wait for the inspiration, than put some arbitrary time goal on yourself that can only increase the pressure, and make the songwriting process less organic.

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  • I’ve been banging the Eilen Jewell drum and the thing that I really love about this album is that it comes close to capturing the feel of her live show with her band (By the way, when will Hank III pull this off?). The previous releases have been more of the singer/songwriter vibe which left me disappointed because she had this great underutilized asset in Jerry Miller. Here the instrumentation really steps to the front with guitar solos and even sax solos that really work.

    I do agree that her band is as important as her to the sound on this album (and especially at her live shows). Jerry is the definition of a show stealer, so I’m not saying she is the best artist/performer/singer. However, when you isolate this album I really do think it can stand up to anything out there right now.

    I think everything in your review is fair, but I don’t think it is accurate to say that she is a product of LA. She has lived all over, originally from Idaho and her career really took off from Massachusetts. I believe their home base is in New England. At least her bass player Johnny Sciascia has a pretty over the top New England accent.

    OK now I’m going to back away from the keyboard before Ice Cold Country : Jamey Johnson :: Big A : Eilen Jewell.

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    • I agree, it does capture the feel of her live show.

      It was not my intention to present her as a “product” of LA. If that is the way it came across, I apologize. If you go to her website/Wiki page etc., it says she’s from LA, and I always find whee someone is from interesting, and so I try to include that info when I can.

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      • Actually, if you read her website / gazillions of interviews on the Internet, you’ll see that she’s actually from Boise, and the band is based in Boston. No one’s from LA.

        You also might want to clarify whether you’re criticizing Jerry Miller or the arrangements. Do you feel he IS being reeled in, or should be? What exactly is the “transgression” you’re referring to? It’s not clear.

        Your review comes across like a criticism of the musician, for doing what he does and doing it well. Are you suggesting a singer should have worse musicians than him/herself at their side? Or should they strive to hire the best? If music is a business, I should think you’d do what any good business leader knows: hire people who fill in your weaknesses.

        There’s also a balance to be struck between showcasing one artist (ie, band as monarchy) and responding to public demand. Contrary to what you seem to imply above, a lot of people do go to see this band to see Eilen *and* her guitar player, not one or the other. The band’s fans are her fans, just as much as the others’. They certainly don’t seem to think she’s being overshadowed — if anything, they want to hear more from the players, not less.

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        • I removed the “LA” in this article. Despite the snarky accusation of your screen name, I can read, and while reading an interview researching this album, and on Eilen’s Wiki page, it said she was based out of LA. Maybe that information is wrong. Maybe she was at some point and now isn’t. If I was wrong, I apologize. But in no way was me saying she was from LA a dig, as some seem to surmise. I have no problem with artists from anywhere, I only included it as interesting information. It took the removal of all of 4 characters to solve that problem.

          I thought I was very clear in giving credit to the arrangements, but said that, in my opinion, Jerry should not be allowed to overshadow Eilen, which I believe is happening. Yes, in my opinion, you can have it both ways. I’m not opposed to what Jerry is doing, I love it, but I also love what Eilen is doing, and want more if it. It is her name on the album cover.

          “Are you suggesting a singer should have worse musicians than him/herself at their side?

          Sometimes you can have addition by subtraction. She would be a fool to fire Jerry. However, sometimes a “worse” musician can fit a sound or arrangement better than another. My guess is Jerry is a wise enough musician that even if Eilen herself saw this as a problem, it could be resolved with Jerry.

          I have a self-inflicted affirmative action program here on this site to give extra attention to female artists. I notice it very commonly with female artists an inability to reign in strong, good male players. Male players dominate the music landscape, that is why I try to give female players an extra benefit of the doubt.

          Eilen and her band’s job is to do the best job they can. My job is to criticize what they do. Second guess my opinions all you want, and a spirited debate back and forth is always welcome on this site. However I wouldn’t be so quick to assume my motivations and grow internet muscles. Like Eilen, I want her music to be the best it can be. That is my motivation.

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