listening booth: jules shear, “dreams don’t count”

Written by Music


Jules Shear – Dreams Don’t Count (2006)
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What do Danny Kortchmar, Ric Ocasek, Elliot Easton, Cyndi Lauper, The Bangles, Peter Gabriel, Marshall Crenshaw, Tommy Keene, The Waterboys, The Band, and Aimee Mann have in common?

Well, lots of things, probably. But one of those things is Jules Shear, who has appeared on or written songs for all of them. He’s an old-school Songwriter (yes, with a capital S) — one of those guys, a la Jimmy Webb, who is better known for the songs he’s written than the ones he’s recorded. This isn’t entirely without justification; Shear the songwriter is responsible for modern pop classics such as “All Through the Night” and “If She Knew What She Wants” — soaring, indelible melodies, witty lyrics and all. When it comes to his own recordings, though, Shear has to make do with a rather limited vocal instrument. Reedy and short on range (one might even say “Dylanesque”), those vocals probably have everything to do with why Jules Shear never became a pop star in his own right.

His early recordings were sometimes guilty of trying to force a square peg (that voice) into a round hole (bright and shiny pop). But as he’s settled into elder statesmanship, Shear has played increasingly to his strengths — the sorrowful streak that anchored much of his best songs has grown heavier with age, and his voice, though still not exactly supple, has built up a few fine layers of salty grizzle.

Which leads us to Dreams Don’t Count, Shear’s ninth recording. If you ask me — and I guess, by default, you sort of are — Dreams is Shear’s best album. Though all his releases are full of great songs, they often left you wondering who’d sound good covering them, and that isn’t the case here. It’s true that his voice is still probably an acquired taste, and his phrasing on some of these songs can run toward the extremely languid, but those moments are few, and they pass quickly. Besides, it’s more than made up for by the fact that this is a stunning set of songs.

It isn’t party music, to be sure; there’s a mournful wind blowing through the album, one that only comes close to calming in the good-natured resignation of “Do What They Want” (download) — but it’s a mournfulness borne of honest self-reflection, not self-pity, and that makes all the difference. My personal favorite is the title track (download), a sad, gorgeous elegy to foolish expectations:

I’m afraid dreams don’t count
You can go dreaming on a star
I’m afraid dreams don’t count
It only matters where you really are
It only matters where you really are

Clearly, a far cry from the days when Shear made his bread and butter by putting words in Susanna Hoffs’ mouth. This is not a bad thing, though. Not a bad thing at all.