It is the battered cassette jammed in the tape deck of the getaway car, the music Ida Lupino cues up on the roadhouse jukebox as she counts the till after close. This is Queen of the Minor Key by Eilen Jewell, a smart cookie with a heart of burnished gold and enough stories to keep even the rowdiest crowd hanging on her every word. Though its long shadows and dark corners make her kingdom feel intimate, her sovereign domain stretches as far as the imagination. Its denizens seek refuge in padded rooms, abandoned automobiles… and strong spirits. They defend their territory by any means necessary: weird voodoo, sawed-off shotguns, broken bottles.
But beware, savvy observer. There is more to Eilen Jewell than meets the ear. Do not confuse the singer and her songs. The drama and darkness that give Queen of the Minor Key its gritty texture are in short supply in the Boston-based songwriter's personal life. And in a curious twist, these fourteen originals actually took shape in a sunny, idyllic location that contrasts strikingly with the album's moody, film noir atmosphere.
In August 2010, Jewell headed to a tiny cabin in the mountains of Idaho. Although her clan hails from the Gem State, this was no comfy retreat at the family fold. Her temporary abode had no running water or electricity, and sat at the end of a winding dirt road. Wild elk would graze in the surrounding meadows while she worked. When it was time to unwind, she availed herself of a nearby hot springs. A dilapidated truck she found on the property even made its way into the album artwork.
She had no set game plan, and her sole objective for the new material was refreshingly modest (or incredibly daunting, depending on your point of view). "My goal as a songwriter is to always improve," she demurs. "Every time I make a record, I want it to be even more real, more heartfelt, than the one before it. I want the slow songs to be slower and the fast songs to be faster." Drawing on a connoisseur's love of roots music and a writer's eye for detail, Jewell fashions her musical vignettes with impressive economy. Each turn of phrase and chord change is executed with an élan that belies the measured precision behind it.
Jewell is wary of repeating previous success by following formulae. "But I also don't want to change things just for the sake of changing them," she adds. Never underestimate the public's ability to recognize calculation masquerading as inspiration. "You always want to ride the creative process to new territory, without being overwhelmingly novel."
Towards that end, she experimented with dark humor in the new material. The title tune takes inspiration from a poke someone made about her harmonic preferences. "I decided to run with that and adopt the moniker, even if it started off as a nickname that wasn't necessarily intended to be flattering." "Bang Bang Bang" eschews the cliché of Cupid as a rosy-cheeked cherub ("he's more reckless and violent than that"), and replaces his petite bow-and-arrow with a gun show six-gauge, plus a laughing disregard for such trivial concerns as aim.
Queen of the Minor Key is also the first Eilen Jewell album to feature a significant number of guest players, even as she continues to work in close consort with her longtime trio of drummer Jason Beek, guitarist Jerry Miller, and upright bassist Johnny Sciascia. Zoe Muth and Big Sandy (of Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys) both contribute vocals. "I was writing the songs with them in mind—if I could work up the courage to ask them—so I was really honored that they agreed to sing with me." Further augmenting the sound are Rich Dubois on fiddle, David Sholl on tenor and baritone saxophones, and Tom West on organ. The arrangements, Jewell insists, occurred organically as the music was fleshed out in the studio; the songs tell her where they want to go. "We don't really think it out that much."
Since her official 2006 debut, Boundary County, Jewell has surveyed a wide range of traditional musical styles, from the folk and jug band leanings of her early recordings, through an album-length homage to Loretta Lynn and the country gospel of her work with The Sacred Shakers, right up to 2009's Sea of Tears, which bristled with the electricity of '60s UK garage rock and Chicago blues.
Queen of the Minor Key draws on everything from classic country (the fiddle-driven "Reckless") to early R&B (the shuffling "Hooked"), with an emphasis on sounds from the seamier side of the tracks. With dirty sax riffs and low-slung guitars, the instrumentals that bookend the album—"Radio City" and "Kalimotxo"—evoke the bump-and-grind exotica of vintage Southern California suburban saloons. Yet on the flipside, Jewell imbues slow, jazzy numbers like "I Remember You" and "Only One" with torch and tenacity that linger long past last call.
Eilen Jewell is the Queen of the Minor Key. Sad songs are her wealth and finery. Lend her your ears, and you will quickly hear why her humble subjects admire and adore her more with each passing year.