It's not an overstatement to say that Eilen Jewell is Johnny Cash reincarnate - at least, that's the sound she puts forth on her seventh album, "Sundown Over Ghost Town." Jewell's melancholy vocals and simplistic instrumentation betray just enough to show each song's depth and autobiographical roots.
The 12 tracks range from lullabies to laments and from toe-tappers to tear-jerkers. Some of it is clearly autobiographical - "Songbird" is a sweet song dedicated to Jewell's new daughter, Mavis (as in Mavis Staples) - while others follow the more vague Americana feel that connects with rural and urban listeners. All of it comes from Jewell's emotional experiences, and although many of the songs have similar tempos and instrumentation, they each have a different meaning or story associated with them that keeps them separate, but equal in effect.
Take "My Hometown," for example. Jewell wrote it while in mourning over the Newtown, Conn. school shooting, but even without that context, the song evokes nostalgia and healing.
It's not all morose, however. On the outset, "Needle and Thread" has a dark sense of humor. "Seven bars, one church: Heaven is no match for hell," she sings as she paints a picture of a stale town. Read a little deeper, and it's the nigh-on ghost town her father lives in, Idaho City, and its 400 residents.
But the two most stand-out pieces are the appropriately on-the-border tune "Rio Grande" and Cash-inspired "Hallelujah Band." The first is the most dance-worthy piece on the album, filled with trumpets, but ironically capturing Jewell's disillusionment of the Southwest. The second is also autobiographical, but with a touch of angst: "I stood next to the tracks, just to feel something pushing back," she sings. "Tearing through each doubt and sin, the train was an iron wind."
Songwriting like that doesn't come overnight, and Jewell knows that firsthand as a 36-year-old Boise, Idaho, native. Don't be fooled by the sweet voice and home-style roots, however - Jewell packs a punch that doesn't bruise until after the meaning of her work sets into listeners' bones.