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Thursday, April 6, 2006 01:03 am

The song’s the thing

You may think you don’t know Jules Shear, but you’d be wrong

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Jules Shear Dreams Don’t Count MAD Dragon Records/ Ryko
You might not think you know who Jules Shear is, but you’ve probably heard at least one of his songs. Although the 54-year-old Pittsburgh native has been performing for almost 30 years now, his songs are much more famous than he is, thanks to several high-profile cover versions. Cyndi Lauper and the Bangles scored chart hits with “All Through the Night” and “If She Knew What She Wants,” respectively, and erstwhile Yaz chanteuse Alison Moyet enjoyed success across the pond with “Whispering Your Name.” Former Byrd Roger McGuinn, 10,000 Maniacs, the Band, and Fairport Convention co-founder Iain Matthews have all covered his songs (Matthews, in fact, recorded an entire album of them). If that’s not enough, Shear’s ex-girlfriend Aimee Mann paid him the ultimate compliment by writing at least one great song about him, the heartbreaking “J for Jules” on the final (and best) ’Til Tuesday album. The consummate songwriter’s songwriter, Shear will probably never enjoy mainstream success as a performer. Like Kris Kristofferson, he simply isn’t a good enough singer to win over the masses; if Shear were auditioning for American Idol, Randy Jackson would no doubt complain, “I dunno, dude; it sounded really pitchy.” But if you can get past the surface infelicities and pay attention to his phrasing, the ingenious way in which he negotiates the challenges presented by his narrow range and Kermit the Frog intonation, his craftsmanship becomes all the more impressive. You start rooting for him, the way you might root for a one-legged athlete in a marathon or that plucky dwarf lady on The Amazing Race. He sounds human and vulnerable, not to mention incredibly smart, and, after a while, his superficial weaknesses start to seem like strengths; he’s not some Pro-Tooled pretty boy vamping it up for the peanut gallery, and he’s never self-important or shticky, the way that technically superior singers (hey, Van Morrison!) often can be. In any case, when it comes to Jules Shear, the song’s the thing, and Dreams Don’t Count, his ninth solo album, contains some of the best songs of his long career. His instantly hummable melodies, his deceptively simple language, his way of scrutinizing an image from several angles until the commonplace seems strange and the strange commonplace — all of the gifts that have earned him the admiration of his fellow songwriters are in sweet abundance, perhaps even more obviously so here because of the chamber-folk setting. On most of the songs, Shear’s voice and acoustic guitar are augmented only by cello, viola, accordion, and the occasional tenor sax and flugelhorn. The sparse instrumentation leaves a lot of empty wall space for Shear’s lyrical and melodic genius to reverberate against, and the results are as lovely as they are sad, like an April landscape seen through a rain-blurred windowpane. Most of the album’s 12 tracks are love songs, but they’re a far cry from the typical moon-in-June banalities. Wry regret and clear-eyed resignation, an acquiescence to the inevitability of suffering and loss that seems almost Buddhist in spirit, permeate every song: “I still got a picture of you/It’s not you anymore,” he sings on one of the CD’s most beautiful cuts. Another standout, “Do What They Want,” reads like a serenity prayer for recovering romantics: “Well, two of a million eyes that loved her/I’m afraid belonged to me/It’s hard when you discover/Nothing’s meant to be.” Yet despite all the rueful realism, the album is anything but a downer, as the title track elegantly demonstrates: “I’m afraid dreams don’t count/It only matters where you really are.” Shear, as the self-help crowd might say, is in a good place.
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