Jewel: Goodbye Alice in Wonderland

Not long ago, I reviewed Everything I Touch Runs Wild by Lori Carson. As I listened to Carson, I wondered why she and her peers are celebrated by rock snobs while artists like Jewel are mercilessly mocked.

Well, the day I took that Lori Carson CD back to the EPFL, what did I see on the shelf? That's right, Jewel's Goodbye Alice in Wonderland. Serendipity, right? No matter the pain, I vowed to work my way through this Jewel album and see if I could figure out why people like me love Carson but hate Jewel.

(To be entirely honest, I've always had a soft spot for Jewel. Everytime I hear one of her songs, it inspires an indescribable sense of nostalgia for a past I've never known. Since I haven't ever heard one of her records from start to finish, this gives me an excuse to check out some Jewel without totally losing my right to call myself a man. Just do me a favor and don't tell anyone, okay?)

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Musically, this is a pretty cold album. It sounds as if producer Rob Cavallo mapped every chord change and orchestral swell out in an Excel spreadsheet, ran a formula to calculate the maximum amount of emotion, then hired a bunch of studio mercenaries to play the solution. It's disappointing, because Cavallo has made some pretty incredible records in his time.

Jewel's words and delivery save Goodbye Alice in Wonderland, though. She makes it believable, and that's a mighty good thing since she calls this her musical autobiography. The words are sincere and sentimental, sometimes raw and confessional, and are clever enough that they even made me laugh out loud once or twice.

You know what'd be nice? If she performed all of these songs by herself, just her voice and her acoustic guitar, without a session musician or an Excel spreadsheet anywhere in sight. If she did that, she might give Lori Carson a run for all that critical acclaim.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It's a good package filled with photos and drawings, but the layout of the lyrics is awful. I would expect an artist who released a book of poetry to know better than to cram each song's lyrics into a big block of difficult-to-read text. Most of the photos of Jewel are very flattering, but there's one where she looks like a drunk who got into Tammy Faye's makeup bag. Not a good look for you, honey.

Listen if you like: Sarah McLachlan, James Blunt, Goo Goo Dolls, Alanis Morissette but you've grown up a bit since you bought Jagged Little Pill. The production is probably way too slick to appeal to fans of singers like Lori Carson.

If it were food, it'd be: jalapeno poppers from a chain restaurant. The core ingredients are spicy, but they're cooked up in a way that won't offend consumers with very bland tastes.


Lori Carson: Everything I Touch Runs Wild

I'm not always certain what the difference is between the Sarah McLachlan / Jewel and the Heidi Berry / Keren Ann artists of the world. Why do critics disparage the former and heap praise upon the latter? Is there really that much difference between the two styles? Is one bereft of integrity while the other overflows with artistic credibility? Or is it simply a matter of popularity? Would music snobs celebrate the entire catalog of Jewel if she'd never sold more than 50,000 copies? Would they berate Keren Ann if she earned a Grammy?

Lori Carson is the kind of artist who makes me ask these questions. On the surface, she falls squarely in the camp of the critically acclaimed and commercially under appreciated singer/songwriter. But her music is so simple and so open that there's no reason it couldn't appeal to millions of lovelorn women who are resigned to curling up in bed with a cat and a Jane Austen novel. A couple of plays on Grey's Anatomy or The OC, and something tells me that Carson would've earned as much love and mockery as Sarah McLachlan and Jewel do.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The album is easy to dismiss at first, but each listen proves more rewarding than the last. At various moments, Carson's songs make me think of Heidi Berry, Keren Ann, Tanya Donelly, Nick Drake, Kristin Hersh, and even Shawn Smith. The music is simple, and at times it is so simple as to teeter on the edge of cliché. The lyrics have none of the complex poetry of Donelly or Drake, but their simplicity cannot disguise a very warm and real humanity. The only stinker is her cover of "I Saw the Light," a song that plays to the worst elements of Carson's sound. Otherwise, this is a perfect album for dark highways and lonely bedrooms.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The design has some subtle touches, but overall there's nothing particularly special about it. It's a shame the cover looks like an outtake from a Bjork photo shoot, because it completely misrepresents the music inside. The photos are very good, but they say nothing about the mood of the album. The lyrics are included, but the musician credits are either in a miserably tiny font or I need glasses.

Listen if you like: Heidi Berry fans should definitely check this out. Her voice is occasionally similar to Tanya Donelly, but her music sounds more like Kristin Hersh. If you like Counting Crows songs like "Raining in Baltimore," you'll probably find something here that you like. And yes, Sarah McLachlan and Jewel fans might like Carson's music.

If it were food, it'd be: a cup of cocoa on a cold and lonely day.

(I think it's worth noting that, while I've bought copies of several of the CDs that I've reviewed here, this is the first time I ordered multiple albums by an artist while I was writing a review.)