After several graceful albums of original material blending country, folk and torch pop, not to mention digressions for gospel and a Loretta Lynn tribute, Eilen Jewell may well have said to herself, “Why not the blues next?” Why not, indeed? Featuring 12 covers, the engaging Down Hearted Blues barely qualifies as a departure for the Idaho-bred singer-songwriter, whose languid delivery, regardless of genre, has often suggested a descendant of Billie Holiday, or a down-home cousin of Madeleine Peyroux.
The big tent of the blues encompasses a host of styles, and Down Hearted Blues runs the gamut, from the scorching electric fury of Otis Rush’s “You Know My Love” to the jaunty swing of Little Walter’s “Crazy Mixed Up World” – both penned by the great Willie Dixon – to the unplugged elegance of Memphis Minnie’s “Nothing in Rambling.” Unlike clumsier white interpreters who have tried over the years to signify credibility by resorting to histrionics or tackling obvious standards (“Stormy Monday,” “Crossroads,” et al.), or both, Jewell doesn’t claim undue authenticity, happily remaining her resolutely unflappable self. This aversion to theatrics lets her spotlight the strong material, and if Down Hearted Blues moves listeners to seek out the originals of Charles Sheffield’s funky “It’s Your Voodoo Working” or Albert Washington’s mournful “You Gonna Miss Me,” so much the better.
Jewell is nowhere near as demure as she seems at first, however. Consider her subtly audacious take on Howlin’ Wolf’s “You’ll Be Mine” (another Dixon tune). Wolf’s typically overwhelming version is a model of controlled brute force, turning what might be an expression of devotion into something verging on a threat. While Jewell can’t conjure such menacing intensity, she’s equally unsettling in her sneaky way. Singing, “How I wish, you was mine/Honey, I’ll be your love/You’ll be mine,” without breaking a sweat, she projects the eerie calm of someone barely hiding a streak of madness.
She boasts the perfect guitar foil in longtime collaborator Jerry Miller (not the Moby Grape dude), who compresses taut solos and hard riffs into small spaces. Engaging in an exuberant back-and-forth with Jewell on an exuberant rendition of Big Maybelle’s “Don’t Leave Poor Me,” driving the beat of Frankie Lee Sims’ “Walking with Frankie” and uncorking bracing Bo Diddley fills on “You’ll Be Mine,” he adds a buzzy undercurrent to the proceedings. But everybody, including drummer Jason Beek (Jewell’s spouse) and bassist Shawn Supra, is on the same page, more concerned with inspiring each other than showboating. That makes Down Hearted Blues all the more impressive.