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James Jewell and Shew | Instruments and Controls (Antenna)
The oddly named Jewell and Shew released a great album in 99 ('Lost') that slipped under most people's radar (including mine) but is definitely worth seeking out for alt.country fans sick and bored to death with earnest Americana or Indie fans looking for something altogether different. The new record, while not quite as cohesive, should still bring the band some welcome accolades and a new group of fans to their original and sometimes zany mix of styles and humour. Kicking off with the double tracked lo-fi Mold (which recalls Sentridoh) and ending with the lush, haggard after-hours balladry of Don't Dream, the record skirts all kinds of genres and forms in-between. But it's two tracks, really, that mark this out from the regular batch of alt.country almost-rans. Flying Away is the first and it's almost too good. A strummed acoustic guitar gives way to a breathy, rushed vocal, "The frost is killing the strawberry fields as I board the plane to London / And like a circus man in a high wire act I get the shudders all of a sudden" he sings and you're drawn in instantly, Jewell sputtering the words out of his mouth as if the hounds of hell were yapping at his ankles. It's fantastic, sounding like an outtake from early Springsteen it's the best thing on this album and one of the songs of the year. The other song of particular note, Reading (as in the town, not what you do with a book) is almost as good and the ghost of Bruce haunts this one as well. Jewell sings of history, bad times and new beginnings with an urgent conviction that's worth the price of admission in itself. But that's not all the album has to offer and while the remaining songs are often weak on lyrics, musically the band shew (sic) that there's still a few tricks up their collective sleeves. Devil takes on the mantle of post-16 Horsepower / Gun Club Gothrock with a MariachiSpaghettiCalexico twist while the mock gospel a-cappella intro to Thank God neatly morphs into a high tempo country shuffle that's almost guaranteed to put a smile on rain-sodden faces. Problems, if you want to dwell on them, are that some of the songs are too slight and whimsical for their own good and the feeling that the band doesn't always take itself as seriously as they should, which might normally be a good thing, but here treads a delicate line between being good and being merely pastiche. Oh, and the two songs with lyrics credited to Jim Morrison shew that he's no better a lyricist dead than when he was alive. Not as good as their debut perhaps, but 'I&C' still sparkles with enough energy and invention to make it worth seeking out.