Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Jules Shear: Between Us

Jules Shear has been around the music business for more than two decades, having composed several songs that became at least minor hits for other people, but were it not for this CD, which grew out of a series of concerts by songwriters that he hosted in the '90s at the now defunct Bottom Line in Manhattan, I most likely either wouldn't recognize his name or would confuse him with Jule Styne.

There seems to be general agreement that the biggest rap against Shear has always been his voice. (Typical: Jon Pareles, in The New York Times: "An exceptional songwriter will always have friends among musicians; a limited singer may need them. Jules Shear is both …") He's no Aaron Neville to be sure, though once you get used to it his singing has a kind of agreeable smokiness to it that I've come to be quite comfortable with. If you prefer your music with no seams showing you're not going to like Between Us, but I'm quite fond of it. Every now and then I dig it out and remind myself of how good a record it is.

Shear has recorded solo and as part of several fairly obscure bands (including one called Jules & the Polar Bears which if nothing else deserves some recognition for having a really cute name). On Between Us he shares vocals in a series of duets with some very good female singers (Paula Cole, Suzzy Roche, Amy Rigby, and others) as well as some male singers (Ron Sexsmith, Freedy Johnston, Curtis Stigers) whose chops are not necessarily out of line with Shear's own. There is one instrumental track, "Entre nous," a duet with bassist Rob Wasserman. Collectively the songs -- at least the ones that have lyrics -- anatomize a relationship that is evidently on the rocks, regarding it with varying proportions of whimsy, melancholy, and resignation. As with lovers since at least the troubadours, the truest evidence of his faith is in the depth of its disappointment.

The lyrics have an improvised, back-of-the-envelope feel to them, which is not at all to suggest that they aren't actually carefully crafted. The same can be said of the arrangements, which are mostly built around Shear's acoustic guitar (he is said to play it idiosyncratically upside-down) with some well-chosen guests on everything from mandolin and banjo to trumpet and sax. The style is eclectic, borrowing as much from torch song and chanson as from folk and country, with a good handful of theatricality thrown in. Shear writes breathtaking bridges, and almost every song here has a great one. It's hard to say how well any of these songs would hold up removed from their context, but taken together they work superbly well.

Almost every cut here has its little delights, in the melody and in the lyrics. One of my favorites is in the final verse of the last song, "You Might As Well Pray," which seems to hold out (if only then to whisk away) a vision of reconciliation:
it's no use backtracking
& wondering where we went
it's like watching where the dog
ran through the wet cement
there's no way in this world
we'll ever be content
so try to make it like the dream we had
the peaceable kingdom
where no one's betrayed
you might as well pray

you might as well pray
you might as well pray
(From 2008; reposted because I'm listening to it and because that's the kind of day it is.)

No comments: