The Popdose Guide to Jules Shear
Here’s one I’ve been meaning to get to for a long time now — Jules Shear has always been on my list of perfect Idiot’s Guide artists. Many of you will see some irony here, but he’s perfect for many of the same reasons that someone like Nik Kershaw is perfect; specifically, he’s released a lot more music than most people are aware of.
This has a lot to do with the fact that significant portions of his catalog are either out of print or have never been released on CD here. That last hangup is what kept me from writing this Guide for so long, actually — it took forever to find transfers for Watch Dog and Eternal Return. And what you’re going to read about in this post doesn’t even tell the whole story — there’s an EP (Jules), a collection of demos (Demo-Itis), an acoustic promo disc (Unplug This), and a best-of (Horse of a Different Color) that have been left out, not to mention Shear’s earlier work, with the Funky Kings and Jules and the Polar Bears, or his one-off side project, The Reckless Sleepers.
You can see why these Guides are getting harder for me to put together. But I digress.
The thing is, Shear is a wonderful songwriter, and you probably think so too, even if you don’t know it. Cyndi Lauper’s “All Through the Night”? Shear wrote it. The Bangles’ “If She Knew What She Wants”? Yep, that was him. Those are the major covers, but Shear’s material has been reinterpreted by a wide array of artists, and he’s collaborated with many more. He’s got an uncommon gift for memorable pop hooks and laugh-out-loud-clever lyrics, and he’s a distinctive guitarist to boot. (Shear’s Wikipedia entry describes his technique as “tuning the guitar in an open-G with an E in the bass. The guitar was not left-hand style per se [with the strings installed in reverse order], but actually held upside down, with the fretting hand’s thumb wrapped down over the upper edge of the neck, barring across the strings, and the low E being at the thumb’s tip.”) Oh, and he also came up with the idea for — and hosted the first “season” of — MTV Unplugged.
So what gives? How come his biggest hit as a recording artist didn’t even crack the Top 40? We don’t answer the hard questions here, but you’ll probably have a few ideas by the time we’re through.
Watch Dog (1983)
For his solo debut, Shear was surrounded by what must have seemed to EMI like a slam-dunk supporting cast — Todd Rundgren in the producer’s chair, Elliot Easton on guitar, Tony Levin and Rick Marotta in the rhythm section, and former Polar Bear/future synthpop production whiz Stephen Hague on keyboards — not to mention a really solid set of songs. As a producer, Rundgren is often criticized for being heavy-handed, and that complaint could certainly be leveled here; from start to finish, Watch Dog is clearly a Rundgren production, and even, in spots, sounds more like a Rundgren solo album than anything else.
This is a fairly minor complaint, though. As much as Rundgren’s decision-making behind the boards tends to date these songs, none of them are really hurt in the process. It sounds like an album from 1983, yes, but not a bad one. And Shear’s reedy singing — probably the biggest thing keeping him from solo stardom — is either buttressed by reverb and backing vocals or polished to a soft sheen. It’s good stuff. It didn’t even chart, of course, but it’s good stuff.
It sounds like a good time, too — Rundgren goes nuts with handclaps and other assorted knob-twiddling on “I Need It” (which also features a nifty guitar solo from Easton, I’m guessing); Shear kneels at the altar of Brian Wilson on “Longest Drink”; and “Marriage Made in Heaven” is a 7:42 pop bonanza.
Since you can’t even get the CDs used anywhere, I’m going to break with tradition here, and offer up all the tracks for Watch Dog and Eternal Return. It’s a vinyl rip, of course, and there are some noticeable defects, but beggars can’t be choosers, I guess. Let’s hope the bandwidth holds up!
Eternal Return (1985)
Watch Dog flopped, but Shear was on the radio anyway, with Lauper’s cover of “All Through the Night,” a state of affairs that not only padded his wallet and probably helped keep him on EMI’s roster, but also gave an indication of where his career was headed. Though Eternal Return spun off a minor hit — the Motown-inspired “Steady” peaked somewhere around #50 — The Bangles took their cover of the album’s “If She Knew What She Wants” much further up the charts. It probably came as no surprise to anyone involved that it’s easier to get things done when you look like Susanna Hoffs, but still, Shear’s songwriting success had to feel a little ironic at this point.
It was 1985, which is pretty much all that needs to be said about Eternal Return’s production, handled by Shear and Bill Drescher. Drummer Anton Fig, in particular, either played no actual drums at all or had his tracks put through one of the most vicious neuterings in all of rock & roll history. The entire band, though, takes a backseat to Rob Fisher’s synths. If you’re not the type to let production distract you, these songs still win out; they’re bright and hooky, and — as The Bangles proved — could have been hits.
With someone else in front of the mike, maybe. But still. And really, Shear’s voice is unusual, but it isn’t bad at all…just an acquired taste that most people hadn’t had a chance to acquire.
Four years later, Shear resurfaced on a new label (I.R.S.) with a new sound, one about as far removed from the synth-heavy Eternal Return as he could have gone. The Third Party, produced with The Church’s Marty Willson-Piper, is an acoustic record — and by “acoustic,” I mean a guitar and a voice. The unplugged fad was right around the corner, complete with choirs and organs and all manner of not-quite-unplugged accoutrements, but Shear — who shortly would surface as the host of MTV Unplugged — stripped his songs to the bone; not only did he help usher in the trend, he was one of the few to do it right.
Not that anybody noticed — and really, listening to The Third Party, it’s easy to see why it wasn’t a hit. This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with the album, but there’s literally not a single entrance point for radio; moreover, eleven guitar-and-vocal tracks can get dull no matter who’s doing the singing or writing the songs, and though Shear is definitely to be commended for making this leap — and though it’s definitely long on ragged, folksy charm — the record is sort of an uneven listen. Still a nice move in the right direction, though, and one which would clearly inform his following albums. Try on “Big Kid Face” (download) and “The Once Lost Returns” (download).
His brief stop at I.R.S. finished, Shear moved on to Polydor for his fourth album, 1992’s The Great Puzzle. It’s considered by many fans to be his best record, and though I’m not sure I share that belief, I do think, in terms of sound, that it’s his most perfect — on his two previous releases, he’d swung from overproduced to barely produced at all, and Puzzle catches him striking a comfortable balance. The first of multiple Stewart Lerman-produced Shear records, Puzzle boasts the involvement of highly-regarded session players such as Larry Campbell, Greg Leisz, and (again) Tony Levin, who contribute to a warm, deceptively intricate web of sound beautifully well-suited to Shear’s poignant, reflective songs.
Ah, the songs — they’re some of Shear’s best, which is really saying something, for two reasons: One, he’s written a lot of solid songs; and two, many artists in his position would have been too worried about selling records to worry about making them. And hey, maybe he was worried, and simply didn’t know how to make any other kind of album, but The Great Puzzle sounds completely, comfortably removed from any kind of commercial concerns. It marks the spot where Shear really begins to find his voice as a recording artist. Start off with “The Trap Door” (download) and “The Mystery’s All Mine” (download).
Though Stewart Lerman didn’t produce Healing Bones — those duties were handled by Rod Argent and ex-Van Morrison/Mike & the Mechanics drummer Peter Van Hooke — this album is the flip side to The Great Puzzle insofar as it weds a collection of excellent Jules Shear songs to full-bodied (but generally non-intrusive) production. The list of player personnel is shorter than Puzzle’s, certainly — it’s just Argent, Elliot Easton, Tony Levin, Jerry Marotta, and Shear — but the songs are arguably better. Shear makes room for a terrific cover of the Walker Brothers’ “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” as well as a pair of cowrites with The Band’s Rick Danko, but it’s a testament to his growing maturity as a songwriter and performer that the album remains thoroughly, delightfully his.
Those seeking to start building a Shear collection would do well to start here. There isn’t a bad song in the bunch — and it’s perfectly sequenced, leading from catchy midtempo numbers to string-laden ballads to rockers — so it’s hard to pick just two songs from the album, but try “Listen to What She Says” (download) and the title track (download). Superb.
It flopped, of course, and that was the end of Shear’s major-label career.
Four years after Healing Bones came and went, Shear showed up on High Street, Windham Hill’s short-lived folk imprint, with Between Us. Smaller label, bigger cast — this is a duets record, each of the fifteen songs pairing Shear with a different partner, and each seemingly about a different love affair gone wrong. Not, in other words, the kind of album you want to play at a party, unless you and a bottle of hard liquor are the only ones on the guest list.
It’s an easy idea — you can just see the faces lighting up in the High Street boardroom — but it works; each of Shear’s partners works within the context of the song, and not just as a units-moving appendage. It isn’t the happiest of albums, not so much due to its subject matter but because of the spare, reflective production — think of it as Shear’s In the Wee Small Hours — and his voice, occasionally a slight liability in the past, is uniquely well-suited to the material. It’s still a limited instrument, but one that, frayed and loosened with age, is perfect for communicating clear-eyed regret.
If there’s a big surprise here, it’s that even on an album featuring vocal contributions from Rosanne Cash, Patty Griffin, Paula Cole, Carole King, Susan Cowsill, Margo Timmins, and others, the big standouts are two duets with men: “It’s All Over But the Smoke” (download), a Lowe/Costello-ish teamup with Ron Sexsmith, and the Freedy Johnston-assisted “Revenge” (download).
Allow Me (2000)
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After High Street folded, Shear moved along to Rounder’s ZÃƒÂ¶e imprint and released Allow Me, an eleven-song collection that — though assuredly not without its high points — represented a bit of an artistic holding pattern. Most of it holds up, and tracks like “The More That I’m Around You” (download) and “Too Soon Gone” (download) are noteworthy additions to his songbook, but you periodically get the feeling Shear’s coasting; “Love With You” and “Deep” are particularly undistinguished.
Still, though, it’s a fairly solid, somewhat atypically cheery and domestic collection, brightened by backing vocals from Suzzy Roche, Vicki Peterson, and Susan Cowsill (the last two formerly of the Continental Drifters). Surprisingly, it wound up being Shear’s only release for ZÃƒÂ¶e, and prefaced a four-year break from recording.
Sayin’ Hello to the Folks (2004)
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When Shear finally did release another album, it was, somewhat inexplicably, a collection of covers: 2004’s Sayin’ Hello to the Folks finds him running through material previously recorded by performers both easy to predict (Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Brian Wilson, Roger Miller, Todd Rundgren) and somewhat odd (Procol Harum, James Brown, Joe Tex). The obvious question is why Shear, always known primarily as a songwriter and not as a vocalist, felt the need to put his personal stamp on these songs; not to take anything away from these performances — some of them are actually quite good — but his natural gifts really don’t lie in interpreting other people’s material. (Particularly James Brown’s. This version of “Ain’t That a Groove” is clearly just for funsies, but still.)
That being said, as a lark, the album works fairly well, even if it is completely inessential for everyone but Shear completists, and Shear’s recordings of Dylan’s “In the Summertime,” Miller’s “Husbands and Wives” (download), and Rundgren’s “Be Nice to Me” (download) are not only beautiful, they actually add something to the originals.
Dreams Don’t Count (2006)
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Here’s what I wrote about Dreams Don’t Count last March, and I still think it sums the record up pretty nicely:
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.