Hereâ€™s one Iâ€™ve been meaning to get to for a long time now â€” Jules Shear has always been on my list of perfect Idiotâ€™s Guide artists. Many of you will see some irony here, but heâ€™s perfect for many of the same reasons that someone like Nik Kershaw is perfect; specifically, heâ€™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 â€” it took forever to find transfers for Watch Dog and Eternal Return. And what youâ€™re going to read about in this post doesnâ€™t even tell the whole story â€” thereâ€™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 Shearâ€™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 donâ€™t know it. Cyndi Lauperâ€™s â€œAll Through the Nightâ€? Shear wrote it. The Banglesâ€™ â€œIf She Knew What She Wantsâ€? Yep, that was him. Those are the major covers, but Shearâ€™s material has been reinterpreted by a wide array of artists, and heâ€™s collaborated with many more. Heâ€™s got an uncommon gift for memorable pop hooks and laugh-out-loud-clever lyrics, and heâ€™s a distinctive guitarist to boot. (Shearâ€™s Wikipedia entry describes his technique as â€œtuning 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 handâ€™s thumb wrapped down over the upper edge of the neck, barring across the strings, and the low E being at the thumbâ€™s tip.â€) Oh, and he also came up with the idea for â€” and hosted the first â€œseasonâ€ of â€” MTV Unplugged.
So what gives? How come his biggest hit as a recording artist didnâ€™t even crack the Top 40? We donâ€™t answer the hard questions here, but youâ€™ll probably have a few ideas by the time weâ€™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 â€” Todd Rundgren in the producerâ€™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 â€” 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 Rundgrenâ€™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 Shearâ€™s reedy singing â€” probably the biggest thing keeping him from solo stardom â€” is either buttressed by reverb and backing vocals or polished to a soft sheen. Itâ€™s good stuff. It didnâ€™t even chart, of course, but itâ€™s good stuff.
It sounds like a good time, too â€” Rundgren goes nuts with handclaps and other assorted knob-twiddling on â€œI Need Itâ€ (which also features a nifty guitar solo from Easton, Iâ€™m guessing); Shear kneels at the altar of Brian Wilson on â€œLongest Drinkâ€; and â€œMarriage Made in Heavenâ€ is a 7:42 pop bonanza.
Since you canâ€™t even get the CDs used anywhere, Iâ€™m going to break with tradition here, and offer up all the tracks for Watch Dog and Eternal Return. Itâ€™s a vinyl rip, of course, and there are some noticeable defects, but beggars canâ€™t be choosers, I guess. Letâ€™s hope the bandwidth holds up!
Eternal Return (1985)
Watch Dog flopped, but Shear was on the radio anyway, with Lauperâ€™s cover of â€œAll Through the Night,â€ a state of affairs that not only padded his wallet and probably helped keep him on EMIâ€™s roster, but also gave an indication of where his career was headed. Though Eternal Return spun off a minor hit â€” the Motown-inspired â€œSteadyâ€ peaked somewhere around #50 â€” The Bangles took their cover of the albumâ€™s â€œIf She Knew What She Wantsâ€ much further up the charts. It probably came as no surprise to anyone involved that itâ€™s easier to get things done when you look like Susanna Hoffs, but still, Shearâ€™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 Returnâ€™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 Fisherâ€™s synths. If youâ€™re not the type to let production distract you, these songs still win out; theyâ€™re bright and hooky, and â€” as The Bangles proved â€” could have been hits.
With someone else in front of the mike, maybe. But still. And really, Shearâ€™s voice is unusual, but it isnâ€™t bad at allâ€¦just an acquired taste that most people hadnâ€™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 Churchâ€™s Marty Willson-Piper, is an acoustic record â€” and by â€œacoustic,â€ 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 â€” who shortly would surface as the host of MTV Unplugged â€” 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 â€” and really, listening to The Third Party, itâ€™s easy to see why it wasnâ€™t a hit. This isnâ€™t to say thereâ€™s anything wrong with the album, but thereâ€™s literally not a single entrance point for radio; moreover, eleven guitar-and-vocal tracks can get dull no matter whoâ€™s doing the singing or writing the songs, and though Shear is definitely to be commended for making this leap â€” and though itâ€™s definitely long on ragged, folksy charm â€” 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 â€œBig Kid Faceâ€ (download) and â€œThe Once Lost Returnsâ€ (download).
His brief stop at I.R.S. finished, Shear moved on to Polydor for his fourth album, 1992â€™s The Great Puzzle. Itâ€™s considered by many fans to be his best record, and though Iâ€™m not sure I share that belief, I do think, in terms of sound, that itâ€™s his most perfect â€” on his two previous releases, heâ€™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 Shearâ€™s poignant, reflective songs.
Ah, the songs â€” theyâ€™re some of Shearâ€™s best, which is really saying something, for two reasons: One, heâ€™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 didnâ€™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 â€œThe Trap Doorâ€ (download) and â€œThe Mysteryâ€™s All Mineâ€ (download).
Though Stewart Lerman didnâ€™t produce Healing Bones â€” those duties were handled by Rod Argent and ex-Van Morrison/Mike & the Mechanics drummer Peter Van Hooke â€” 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 Puzzleâ€™s, certainly â€” itâ€™s just Argent, Elliot Easton, Tony Levin, Jerry Marotta, and Shear â€” but the songs are arguably better. Shear makes room for a terrific cover of the Walker Brothersâ€™ â€œThe Sun Ainâ€™t Gonna Shine Anymore,â€ as well as a pair of cowrites with The Bandâ€™s Rick Danko, but itâ€™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 isnâ€™t a bad song in the bunch â€” and itâ€™s perfectly sequenced, leading from catchy midtempo numbers to string-laden ballads to rockers â€” so itâ€™s hard to pick just two songs from the album, but try â€œListen to What She Saysâ€ (download) and the title track (download). Superb.
It flopped, of course, and that was the end of Shearâ€™s major-label career.
Four years after Healing Bones came and went, Shear showed up on High Street, Windham Hillâ€™s short-lived folk imprint, with Between Us. Smaller label, bigger cast â€” 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.
Itâ€™s an easy idea â€” you can just see the faces lighting up in the High Street boardroom â€” but it works; each of Shearâ€™s partners works within the context of the song, and not just as a units-moving appendage. It isnâ€™t the happiest of albums, not so much due to its subject matter but because of the spare, reflective production â€” think of it as Shearâ€™s In the Wee Small Hours â€” and his voice, occasionally a slight liability in the past, is uniquely well-suited to the material. Itâ€™s still a limited instrument, but one that, frayed and loosened with age, is perfect for communicating clear-eyed regret.
If thereâ€™s a big surprise here, itâ€™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: â€œItâ€™s All Over But the Smokeâ€ (download), a Lowe/Costello-ish teamup with Ron Sexsmith, and the Freedy Johnston-assisted â€œRevengeâ€ (download).
Allow Me (2000)
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After High Street folded, Shear moved along to Rounderâ€™s ZÃƒÂ¶e imprint and released Allow Me, an eleven-song collection that â€” though assuredly not without its high points â€” represented a bit of an artistic holding pattern. Most of it holds up, and tracks like â€œThe More That Iâ€™m Around Youâ€ (download) and â€œToo Soon Goneâ€ (download) are noteworthy additions to his songbook, but you periodically get the feeling Shearâ€™s coasting; â€œLove With Youâ€ and â€œDeepâ€ are particularly undistinguished.
Still, though, itâ€™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 Shearâ€™s only release for ZÃƒÂ¶e, and prefaced a four-year break from recording.
Sayinâ€™ Hello to the Folks (2004)
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When Shear finally did release another album, it was, somewhat inexplicably, a collection of covers: 2004â€™s Sayinâ€™ 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 â€” some of them are actually quite good â€” but his natural gifts really donâ€™t lie in interpreting other peopleâ€™s material. (Particularly James Brownâ€™s. This version of â€œAinâ€™t That a Grooveâ€ 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 Shearâ€™s recordings of Dylanâ€™s â€œIn the Summertime,â€ Millerâ€™s â€œHusbands and Wivesâ€ (download), and Rundgrenâ€™s â€œBe Nice to Meâ€ (download) are not only beautiful, they actually add something to the originals.
Dreams Donâ€™t Count (2006)
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Hereâ€™s what I wrote about Dreams Donâ€™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. Heâ€™s an old-school Songwriter (yes, with a capital S) â€” one of those guys, a la Jimmy Webb, who is better known for the songs heâ€™s written than the ones heâ€™s recorded. This isnâ€™t entirely without justification; Shear the songwriter is responsible for modern pop classics such as â€œAll Through the Nightâ€ and â€œIf She Knew What She Wantsâ€ â€” 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 â€œDylanesqueâ€), 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 heâ€™s settled into elder statesmanship, Shear has played increasingly to his strengths â€” 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 Donâ€™t Count, Shearâ€™s ninth recording. If you ask me â€” and I guess, by default, you sort of are â€” Dreams is Shearâ€™s best album. Though all his releases are full of great songs, they often left you wondering whoâ€™d sound good covering them, and that isnâ€™t the case here. Itâ€™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, itâ€™s more than made up for by the fact that this is a stunning set of songs.
It isnâ€™t party music, to be sure; thereâ€™s a mournful wind blowing through the album, one that only comes close to calming in the good-natured resignation of â€œDo What They Wantâ€ (download) â€” but itâ€™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:
Iâ€™m afraid dreams donâ€™t count
You can go dreaming on a star
Iâ€™m afraid dreams donâ€™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 Hoffsâ€™ mouth. This is not a bad thing, though. Not a bad thing at all.