Remember to Breathe

Female singer-songwriters seem to have been breeding like rabbits over the past couple years. Every week there's another one on the radio, each with an angry maladjusted childhood axe to grind as well as a pretty love song to sing. Every record label is hungrily searching for another Tori Amos or Jewel.

Rebekah isn't either of them.

But the 25-year-old Cleveland native does have a light, earnest voice, and a bag of nice catchy songs that go down easy. She never gets in-your-face hard like Alanis Morrisette or Meredith Brooks, instead favoring guitar, piano and string arrangements and the occasional funky bassline. Tasmin Archer (who had a hit a couple years back with "Sleeping Satellite") is probably the closest touchstone for describing Rebekah's earthy pop sense.

Remember to Breathe offers a couple of sassy "lust" songs in "Hey Genius" (a rockin' put-down of "fast-talking pickup artists") and "Sin So Well," the crunchy singalong first single. The latter uses the alchemy that has launched so many careers — a mix of religion icons, sex and disapproving parents combine when Rebekah sings "mama doesn't like when I sin so well...lead us not into temptation but oh what a way to go."

The title track is a brooding piece of piano and marshall drums as Rebekah sings about searching for something to believe in. But her true "angst" moment comes at the end of the album in "Little Black Girl," which bemoans of the lack of black role models and cautions the title character (it was written for her young niece) not to accept the stereotypes the world will thrust on her. While much of the album quickly fades to background music, there are some catchy, hooky moments on Remember to Breathe that mark Rebekah as someone to remember. The pop charts surely have room for one more funky yet delicate-voiced female singer songwriter.


Jules Shear
Between Us
(High Street)

Speaking of singer-songwriters, veteran tunesmith Jules Shear has just released his first new studio album in four years. Any Shear album is cause for celebration; the former "MTV Unplugged" host yields a sharp, inciteful, pop-rock pen that never stoops to cliche and always draws the ear in with a hook. He's written hits for Cyndi Lauper ("All Through The Night"), The Bangles ("If She Knew What She Wants") and Alison Moyet ("Whispering Your Name") among others over the years, as well as maintained a steady solo career.

This time around, he's abandoned rock band trappings for the sound of a quiet guitar and the emotion of two voices wending their way up and down the scales of feeling. Between Us is an album of duets with a revolving door of partners ranging from Paula Cole, Curtis Stigers and Rosanne Cash to Carole King, Freedy Johnston and the singers from 10,000 Maniacs, Frente, and Cowboy Junkies. It's a stellar lineup of partners for a quiet, often romantic series of original songs. Shear's rough, often Dylan-esque vocals are smoothed out and complemented perfectly by nearly all of his chosen partners, and the song styles, while remaining campfire simple in orchestration, run the gamut from country, folk and pop.

Shear's duet with Paula Cole on "The Last In Love" opens the disc with a good indication of the treats in store; an old fashioned late night folk ballad, Cole's vocals follow and counterpoint Shear's in a strong, bittersweet tale of lovers who always find that their beloved loses the feeling before them. It's a sentiment anyone who's been dumped can identify with. Angie Hart's waifish, crystalline vocals turn out to be the perfect vehicle to aid Shear in the slow cycle of "Betrayal Takes Two." The Frente vocalist adds a girlish innocence to the song which lays the blame of a betrayer not at the feet of just one or two people, but to three:

"Betrayal takes two
but it's usually three
one too tight
and another too free
but not 'til the third one finds that light
does the picture come complete
betrayal takes two
betrayal takes two
but it's usually three."

Rosanne Cash steps in to harmonize beautifully on an accordion-cajun ballad of mutual discovery called "Who's Dreaming Who." Ron Sexsmith joins in on the somber "All Over But The Smoke" which sounds nostalgically close to early Jackson Browne material. The charming ooooh-ooohs of "Restaurant Scene," sung with Susan Cowsill also brings to mind early '70s Browne and James Taylor in its delicate phrasing and melancholic guitar strums.

"Windows and Walls" echoes the sentiment of "The Last In Love" as Patty Griffin echoes Shear's passionate despair atop a quiet musical bed of acoustic guitar strums, light piano and a touch of soft trumpet:

"You used to want everything
now you want peace
if it can't be with him
then within you at least
when love learns to run before it can crawl
You can't keep a love in with windows and walls"

Shear offers some sage advice for friends who get the urge to meddle in "Revenge" sung with Freedy Johnston. The tightly harmonized tale again sounds a lot like early Jackson Browne, and tells the story of a man who has a fight with his lover, gets drunk and then takes refuge at a friend's (the singer). "She hurts you and in revenge/you kill a fifth/but that only works in old movies/you know it's just a myth." Shear notes that while he can listen to the wounded friend's complaints, "if I agree/then I will become the enemy/and you'll ask how you ever could call me a one else sees where only the two of you go/no one else feels what only the two of you know."

A banjo helps out in "On These Wheels Again," an Appalacian homage to Jimmy Rogers with Suzzy Roche and Rob Wasserman duets on guitar on the ironically instrumental title track "Entre Nous" (French for "Between Us"). Carole King sounds weathered and vulnerable on "How Many Times" and Cowboy Junkies' Margo Timmins brings a warm depth to "Sealed Up Hollow," a song about broken and bolted shut hearts which reaches for minor key chords and a tear-wrenching "Sunrise Sunset" kind of chorus finish.

Between Us is the kind of CD that almost nobody makes anymore. It's an album stripped of studio overdubs and effects, letting the songs speak for themselves: and the songs are sweet, sentimental, honest and enchanting.