James Jewell and Shew’s Wasted, and Instruments and Controls

James Jewell read my reviews of Adams Hotel Road and Idiots by his fellow Pennsylvanians Frog Holler, and wrote to ask me if he could send me his CDs. I said yes, and he did, and I’m glad.

Jewell, who lives, works and plays in Kutztown, Pennsylvania (between Reading and Johnstown), creates music that is unclassifiable and, once you’ve heard it, immediately recognizable. His music rides a wide territory that takes in indie rock, alternative country and folk, with elements of bluegrass, honkytonk and more.

The tunes are catchily melodic, and teamed with Jewell’s lyrics they’re capable of lodging deep in your subconscious and tormenting you for days on end. Jewell has a rough voice somewhere between a baritone and a tenor, and he delivers his songs in a half-spoken, half-sung manner, ranging from a near-whisper to a yelping growl. He accompanies himself on guitar, usually a strummed or finger-picked acoustic, and his band Shew provides sparse backing vocals (ragged ooohs, aaahs and la-la-las) along with electric bass and drums. The most common rhythm is a fast-paced, railroad-beat shuffle played on the brushed snare. A handful of other musicians help out on instruments ranging from melodica and synthesizer to handclaps and “elephante.”

cover artWasted is a wildly original debut. The songs, most of which have one-word titles like “Lost,” “Colors,” “Uphill,” “Rely,” and “Wasted,” are little poetic gems with oddly metered lyrics like “Everybody’s lost, and all hope is gone,” “Where does the wind blow us when our time is through?” and “You said that I think too much/But all I’ve got’s in my head.”

The melodies are simple and catchy, the rhythm strong and deliberate, and the vocals up front over very sparse instrumentation. The opening track, “Lost,” sets the tone perfectly. In just one song are echoes of the Holy Modal Rounders’ surrealistic folk, the Meat Puppets’ off-kilter harmonies, Lambchop’s country-lounge vibe, even Leonard Cohen’s existential despair. “I can’t see with my eyes, I can’t hear with my nose/but I can smell everything with my heart and I keep my mouth closed.”

“Cigarette” is a languidly chugging miniature metaphor, with accents of banjo, melodica and dobro. “Colors” is a lazily swinging study of colors as metaphor for emotions. Jewell sings “Spider” solo with just his own fingerpicked guitar. It starts as a childlike ditty about a spider in a windstorm, and ends up as a musing on the nature of eternity.

The title track adds horns to the mix of an acoustic rocker, with references to the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and lyrics that are overpacked like early Springsteen. “Train” is a mystical stew using the imagery of road and rail: “Late at night when the hills turn black/and you can’t see the highways and tracks/the trucks and the trains leave the ground and they fly/like spirits leave their bodies when they die.” The album’s high point is “Rely,” a bluesy paen to love and friendship with a hopelessly catchy a capella chorus, “I rely, I rely, I rely, I rely on you.”

At 44 minutes Wasted is about the length of a vinyl LP, although the songs, which average about four minutes, sometimes overstay their welcome by a minute or so. But overall, Wasted is one of the most consistently entertaining CDs I’ve encountered in a long while.

(Antenna, 1998)

cover artInstruments and Controls is similar in theme and scope, although the songs, which are a little more heavily produced and include more electric guitar, tend to have a slightly unfinished feel.

“Mold” is a very slow, plodding track to start a CD with, and with its indie-rock trappings isn’t representative of the rest of the album. At over four minutes, it’s about two minutes too long.

“Pretend” is back on medium-fast shuffle ground, with a multi-part falsetto “doo-doo-doo” backing vocal and an element of dissonance missing on Wasted. Sonically, Instruments is much more varied than Wasted, with more electric guitar, wailing blues harps, and organ interspersed throughout. But even with high points like “Flying Away,” an infectious, hook-laden rocker with a powerful vocal performance from Jewell, I don’t find it quite as captivating a project as Wasted. But in a world of prefabricated pop and by-the-numbers balladry, James Jewell and Shew are unabashedly original.

(Antenna, 2001)

You can learn more and purchase or listen to clips of some of Jewell’s songs at his website  and on Bandcamp. Highly recommended.

Gary Whitehouse

A fifth-generation Oregonian, Gary is a retired journalist and government communicator. Since the 1990s he has been covering music, books, food & drink and occasionally films, blogs and podcasts for Green Man Review. His main literary interests for GMR are science fiction, music lore, and food & cooking. A lifelong lover of music, his interests are wide ranging and include folk, folk rock, jazz, Americana, classic country, and roots based music from all over the world. He also enjoys dogs, birding, cooking, craft beer, and coffee.

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