Hailed by American Songwriter as “one of America’s most intriguing, creative, and idiosyncratic voices,” Eilen Jewell rises from the ashes on her captivating new album, Get Behind The Wheel, picking up the pieces of her shattered world and finding new purpose and meaning after watching her marriage, her band, and what felt like her entire career fall apart in a series of spectacular, heartbreaking implosions. Co-produced by multi-instrumental wizard Will Kimbrough (Todd Snider, Hayes Carll), the collection pushes the acclaimed singer and songwriter’s trademark blend of vintage roots-noir into more psychedelic territory, with spacious, cinematic arrangements complementing her revelatory explorations of grief, loss, resilience, and redemption.
An Idaho native, Jewell built her career the old fashioned way, touring relentlessly with the kind of undeniable live show that converts the uninitiated into instant acolytes. Over the course of nine albums, she’s crisscrossed the globe countless times and shared bills with the likes of Lucinda Williams, Loretta Lynn, Mavis Staples, Wanda Jackson, George Jones, and Emmylou Harris. Rolling Stone lauded Jewell’s “clever writing,” while NPR declared that she has a “sweet and clear voice with a killer instinct lurking beneath the shiny surface,” and The Washington Post mused that “if Neko Case, Madeleine Peyroux and Billie Holiday had a baby girl who grew up to front a rockabilly band, she’d probably sound a lot like Eilen Jewell.”
Nick Delffs grew up in Mendocino County, a lawless stretch of coastline that’s hard to get to and, for many, hard to escape. Nick did — emerging in the early aughts as the frontman for Portland band The Shaky Hands, whose sharp, jittery rock was anchored by Nick’s quavering vocals and questing lyrics. The Shaky Hands were mainstays of Portland on the verge of a major shift, and they rode that shift a while, signing to Kill Rock Stars and touring internationally with some of the bigger names in indie rock. But a hiatus in 2011 became indefinite and Nick Delffs was once again cast into the world: working as a sideman, releasing solo records, doing manual labor, going deeper into his spiritual practices, and, crucially, becoming a father.
Becoming a parent can affect different artists in different ways. Nick rode that change with surpassing grace and maturity. 2017’s Redesign, his first full-length under his own name, reflected the transition. In “Song for Aja”, Nick touched on other concerns familiar to those who follow his work: love of the natural world; longing for spiritual and physical connection; the desire to suffer with meaning and exult with abandon, to embrace somehow the world in its maddening contradictions and find the unity at the core.
Childhood Pastimes, his second release on Mama Bird Recording Co., is both more focused and, despite being technically an EP, more ambitious. It’s a four-song cycle — one song with many movements or four songs that bleed into one another, depending on how you hear it — that can be viewed either as a personal journey or an archetypal passage of a human being through four discrete stages: roughly, the movement from childhood innocence into adolescent adventure (The Escape); the sudden immersion into a life of discovery and excitement (The Dream); the first experience of romantic love, followed by the onset of heartbreak, dissolution, breakdown of self (The Affair); the emergence into a new way of thinking, a fresh perspective that encompasses all the suffering and joy into a balanced whole (The Outside).
Nick plays nearly all of the instruments here and the result is a unified aesthetic, born ultimately of his deep-seated love of rhythm: the thrum and throb of the acoustic guitars, the percussive melodic bang of the elegantly-crafted piano lines, and always, always the insistent, driving drums, propelling the record, and the listener, on this journey as the four tracks bleed into one another, one body, one blood, one beating heart. The concept of four songs that are really one suite of music requires a sure hand, and Nick’s never shakes: the way the songs blend together while retaining their distinctiveness — from the poppy exaltation of “The Escape” to the cold intensity, almost like an acoustic Kraftwerk, of “The Affair” — shows a songwriter and musician who has fully grown into his powers.
Those who have followed Nick’s career may see this as a culmination of years and years of honing and fine-tuning his bountiful gifts, and wonder with delight what might come next. For those who haven’t listened to Nick before, Childhood Pastimes is the perfect entry point, a distillation of what’s come before and the promise of a new beginning.