Review: After a Tumultuous Few Years, Eilen Jewell Drives Her Diverse Noir Roots on ‘Get Behind the Wheel’

Eilen Jewell
Get Behind the Wheel
(Signature Sounds)
4 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

It has never been easy to categorize Eilen Jewell’s music. Nine albums into a career that started in 2005, it’s not getting any easier. Nor is her life.

Like everyone else in her industry, the pandemic put her career on ice for a few years, but things went from bad to worse when Jewell’s marriage (to her drummer/manager) fell apart, leaving her professionally adrift with a young child to care for. It has taken four years, a lot of reflection, and much hiking in the Idaho mountains, for things to sort themselves out.

Not surprisingly, much of this turmoil, and even the subsequent positive outcome (her ex-husband remains her manager/drummer, and Jewell’s long-time band, featuring lead guitar wizard Jerry Miller is still together) appears in the lyrics to these eleven powerful selections. It helps to have Will Kimbrough not only behind the boards as producer, but handling multiple instruments, to craft these already stirring performances into a touching, diverse whole.

The Idaho-born and bred musician mixes strains of blues, country, rockabilly, folk, and even a touch of jazz for an eclectic palette topped by her sweet, sometimes witty, always-moving vocals. That idiosyncratic combination—her bio calls it “roots noir”—to which we can now add psychedelic influences, falls into the vague Americana bucket. Jewell pulls these disparate threads into a whole that has proven artistically viable, if not quite as commercially successful as she deserves. 

The opening “Alive,” whose words provide the album’s title, sets the tone with a dark, ominous, and slightly eerie taut slow-burn rocker where Jewell sings Fill up my glass, I want more/I run on these fumes, accelerator’s floored as Miller inserts his tense, twisty guitar. It’s one of Jewell’s most emotionally intense compositions and introduces a more aggressive sound that weaves through the remaining tracks.

Those who absorb liner notes will recognize the name Fats Kaplin. His work on pedal steel and other stringed instruments has appeared on dozens of albums and he guests on three songs here. His sinewy tone enhances the country-infused “Winnemucca” and the soft, chillingly introspective “Silver Wheels and Wings.” The latter has Jewell singing We’re coming apart at the seams / Nothing is as it should be, seemingly referencing her divorce, over somber pedal steel and guitar solos. The overall vibe is elevated with the peppy “Lethal Love” that touches on the bluesy rockabilly Jewell has often gravitated to.

She works wonders digging deep for a relatively straight cover of Van Morrison’s Them ballad “Could You Would You” and slows down the once jaunty Jackie DeShannon gem (popularized by Irma Thomas), “Breakaway” to an unhurried, bluesy lope, advancing its heartbroken theme of being unable to remove herself from an ex, better than the previous, rather frisky, versions. The deliberate “Outsiders” also displays Jewell’s blues roots as she sings Who was I supposed to be / Anybody else but me, referencing her last few confusing years in a voice that’s soft yet stressed.

But it’s the closing “The Bitter End” where Jewell and Kimbrough break sharply with her past. The disc’s longest tune (at over five minutes) builds from a simmering introduction to an unnerving, backward tape-enhanced finish with the words Oh, you crazy, crazy heart…You have to break before you can bend. It brings this remarkable collection, arguably Jewell’s finest, to an unsettling close.

Photo courtesy IVPR

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