Jules Shear | Dreams Don’t Count (MAD Dragon)

Dreams Don’t Count finds the veteran songwriter in top solipsistic form, despite the aid of a well-tempered backup cadre of cello, viola, accordion, and bass. It’s clear this presentation stands or falls on the strength of Shear’s acoustic guitar, imperfectly wispy voice, acute wordplay, and sober tenor.

Jules Shear can’t get any respect. As a songwriter, he’s penned hits for the Bangles (“If She Knew What She Wants”), Cyndi Lauper (“All Through the Night”), and in the United Kingdom, Allison Moyet (“Whispering Your Name”), while failing to crack the fickle charts himself. His songs have been covered by the likes of the Band, Roger McGuinn, 10,000 Maniacs, Curtis Stigers, and Iain Matthews, while Shear languishes in virtual obscurity. He developed and served as emcee of MTV’s Unplugged acoustic series until network executives eliminated his position while retooling the show to fit their own vision. The guy doesn’t even have his own Web site. Typing www.julesshear.com into an Internet browser takes you to a strange shopping site where all things Jules Shear are mysteriously absent.

After releasing two brilliant singer-songwriter pop masterpieces in the ’90s (The Great Puzzle, Healing Bones) on major label Polygram, the nomadic Shear has since knocked around from small independent label to label, this time landing at miniscule MAD Dragon, an affiliate of Drexel University in Philadelphia. And yet all this lack of respect hasn’t precluded Shear from producing some of the most heady folk-pop of the last 25 years.

Dreams Don’t Count finds the veteran songwriter in top solipsistic form, despite the aid of a well-tempered backup cadre of cello, viola, accordion, and bass. It’s clear this presentation stands or falls on the strength of Shear’s acoustic guitar, imperfectly wispy voice, acute wordplay, and sober tenor.

While Shear deals in the darker markets of love’s labors lost and the scored gloom of bygone relationships, there’s ever the glint of hope in most of his dourest compositions, as evidenced in the record’s title track, wherein the singer advises, “I’m afraid dreams don’t count/it only matters where you really are.” Hapless and hopeless romantics have always held sway in the court of Shear’s songs, to varying effect. The bittersweet resolve of the existential “Used to It” stars a sweetly morose balladeer caught in a world clearly not meant for him, yet who admits he’d better get used to it. In “Sinners Who Believed,” Shear challenges the romantic notions of our belief systems by whimsically rendering them futile: “All you sinners got it right through the heart/all you sinners who believed in love.”

The ominous “An Important Part” plays like a pivotal scene in a 1940s film noir thriller: a shadow without a head, footsteps with no discernible source. “You have swallowed your desire/you could drown in your old stories,” Shear complains. “An important part died but you’re still walking,” he insists, just ahead of the ashy sass of a lone tenor sax.

Not all brooding and introspective, the record contains some pseudo-countrified social explorations in the form of “Do What They Want” and the opener “Bad Connection” that keep the overall presentation from miring, and the folky “I Want to Fall” offers the emblematic, fan-familiar Shear harmonies and brainy aphorisms.

While critically acclaimed and publicly underappreciated through the last three decades, it’s clear the axiomatic Shear holds certain truths to be self-evident: that at this stage of his life and career, he’s more concerned with producing music that speaks of and for himself, knowing that embracing some “sound of the day” and scoring a chart-topper is feckless and hollow.

In the 30-year parade of Funky Kings, Jules and the Polar Bears, Reckless Sleepers, and his long solo career, Shear quietly comes to Dreams Don’t Count, his Walden Pond, his tree to sit beneath and think. Maybe in his maturity and experience he discovers what he’s known all along: that melody, passion, and intelligence can coexist in the confines of a pop song. Forever the traditionalist. Sure wouldn’t hurt to have some young geek whip up a Web site for the guy, though.


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