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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
ewel’s been around long enough to earn a live compilation, and since the word “essential” has been stretched thin enough to cover some awfully questionable best-ofs from some awfully questionable groups, it would certainly seem possible to argue the existence of such a thing as “essential Jewel.” But to flip over this set’s case and see that two DVDs and 47 tracks are waiting to be watched is to experience vertigo-inducing incredulity. Good Lord, can even Jewel believe she’s recorded that many essential songs?
The answer, as it turns out, is no; a not-inconsiderable number of songs (eleven, to be exact, not counting the set-closing yodel that pops up on both DVDs) make two appearances, cutting the number of Jewel tracks that apparently must be heard down to a more manageable – but still fairly ridiculous – 34. Throw in a bit of bonus content, including an interview with Ms. Kilcher and a bonus video for “Stephenville, TX,” and you’ve got yourself a lot of Jewel. Clearly, the woman has enough fans to keep making music, as evidenced by the country disc she recently released, but even for true believers, two DVDs and 238 minutes of Jewel seems like an awful lot.
On the bright side, “The Essential Live Songbook” retails for under $30, so KOCH is offering sufficient bang for the buck – and if you count yourself among Jewel’s fans, you should be very pleased with what’s on offer here: the sprawling set list makes room for the requisite hits (two of which, “Hands” and “Intuition,” receive the orchestral treatment on the second disc) and plenty of album tracks. She’s in fine voice here, too, and pulls out all of her vocal tricks at various points – the breathy babydoll, the throaty yodel, and the out-of-nowhere divebomb are all present and accounted for.
Probably the best thing about “The Essential Live Songbook” is that Jewel presents the songs, for the most part, unaided with nothing more than her acoustic guitar; although a full band shows up for the latter half of the first DVD, and an orchestra appears for the final numbers of the second set, this is mostly just Jewel unfiltered – which is significant, because since going platinum with her largely acoustic debut, Pieces of You, she’s flitted from one sound to the next, trying everything from goopy AC balladry to machine-driven dance pop. Refracting her songs through different prisms has helped her publicity machine give the press something to latch onto with each new album, but it hasn’t helped the songs, and by freeing them from their trappings here, Jewel finally allows them to stand or fall on their own merits.
Their success here, of course, will depend largely on your level of tolerance for Jewel in general, and here’s where the set’s excessive length is a factor – because unless you’re a truly hardcore fan, a little Jewel can go an awfully long way, and by the time you get to the end of “The Essential Live Songbook,” you may find yourself crossing over from pleasant surprise to mild annoyance and into full-on hostile boredom. It isn’t her fault that she’s a pretty blonde with a splendid rack, and she certainly has the right to wear as much makeup and cute little dresses as she likes – but there’s still something mildly off-putting about an artist who spends half of her career trying to build up post-feminist credibility, and the other half penning cutesy-pie come-ons. One side need not necessarily preclude the other, and perhaps Jewel’s whole point is that every woman should be able to explore all sides of her personality – but her music doesn’t feel like the work of a single, whole personality; it feels like the work of a savvy celebrity who knows how to have her cake and eat it too.
And then there are the songs themselves, which mostly occupy the Pier 1 candle-scented ground between annoyingly artsy “poetry” and laughably literal lyrics (best example of the latter: “Race Car Driver,” which, as Jewel explains to her audience, is about a bad date with a race car driver. And yes, it does include a line about him being a “real small man with a really big car”). Her songs, for the most part, aren’t bad – they’re just bland, and because she’s often obviously straining to be profound or insightful, her shortcomings are amplified in a live acoustic setting. She’s charming and periodically witty here, and this will be a nice addition to any Jewel fanatic’s collection, but it’s more comprehensive than essential. Casual listeners need not apply.