Jewel's Pearls Of (Gee)Whiz-dom

There are moments that recall the fragile ardor of Janis Ian when she was a young folkie. But nothing here has singer-songwriter Ian's insight.

Her success was like kittens. Cute and sweet.

Jewel, the pleasant, young singer-songwriter with the comely, flute-like

voice, had a hit album on her first try. Awww...

When her debut recording, Pieces of You, was released in 1995,

Jewel came off as eager, earnest and callow. Just out of her teens, she

carried herself like a hippie nymphet turned subway busker with a guitar

over her shoulder and a jaunty cap shading her eyes. In early concert

appearances, she was casually rumpled, wary and vulnerable.

"Who Will Save Your Soul" -- a plaintive sermon of a single from the

album -- was followed up the charts by the sing-songy love ballad, "You

Were Meant For Me." (Not since His "Rocky Mountain High"-ness John

Denver sang "Annie's Song" were romantic platitudes so benign and

teary.)

This kid from Alaska was a re-invention of a folk-music stereotype --

the innocent, strumming poetess who feels things deeply. You could

imagine her raised on a commune, sitting in a college dorm room bleating

about her pain as she essayed a minor chord progession, etc., etc.

But Jewel's album would eventually sell over 10 million copies

world-wide. By the time a third hit single -- the ache-o-matic "Foolish

Games" -- had been milked from Pieces of You, Jewel herself had

saturated the media: radio play, magazine covers, TV appearances.

And Li'l Scruffy was getting more and more glamorous with each passing

day. Sleek. Fashionable. Makeover City, man.

Thus, the big machine turned an ambitious folkie wannabe into a star.

Years go by. No new album comes out. Jewel, with no acting credits to

her name, is signed for a role in a major feature film. Jewel appears on

"The Tonight Show" yet again. A tedious book of her schoolgirl poetry is

released and makes the best-seller lists.

Rumors of the long-awaited second album filter out into the press. How

long could it possibly take to crank out another set of heartfelt audio

fluff? Is there nothing left to the poor thing after showbiz

assimilation?

Well, Jewel's Spirit is finally among us, and it's even lamer

than the uncomplicated, unvarnished banalities of her first album. The

hit singles from Pieces of You were at least catchy.

Spirit is a poofy-sounding collection of naive truisms ("The more

I live, the more I know") and humanitarian homilies ("In the end, only

kindness matters") attached to airy, insubstantial melodies with pretty

basic instrumentation. It's well-played by deft studio hands and a few

ringers, such as bassist Flea from the punky funk-rock band Red Hot

Chili Peppers. It's produced with delicacy by Patrick Leonard, who has

hacked out plenty of radio and club fodder for Madonna.

There are girlish love songs, such as "What's Simple Is True" and "Kiss

The Flame," and enough New Age babble -- the single, "Hands," and the

self-actualizing "Deep Water" -- to make hug-meister/therapist Leo

Buscaglia rise from his grave and throw his arms around our dulcet

thrush. (Jewel longs to be held ... well, she says so a few times over

the course of the album.)

"Down So Long" is Jewel's version of angst, shot

through with longing and set to a bluesy acoustic guitar arrangement

lifted from one of Neil Young's folk-rock musings. Our emotional pilgrim

is trying to learn to love herself in "Barcelona," but -- darn it! --

it's hard. ("I hold myself hostage in the mirror," she tells us.)

"Fat Boy" is an ill-considered bit of bathos masquerading as empathy and

social consciousness. "Jupiter" is an attempt at fanciful romantic

revery in the manner of Jewel's more cerebral contemporary, Tori Amos.

(They are each capable of invoking the swooping soprano gymnastics of

the far-more-sophisticated folk diva, Joni Mitchell -- an inspiration to

both).

"Hands" and "Absence of Fear" have some shred of the pop-wise balladry

that made Pieces of You move off the shelves. There are moments

that recall the fragile ardor of Janis Ian when she was a young folkie.

But nothing here has singer-songwriter Ian's insight.

It's hard to doubt Jewel's sincerity. But her decent, honest sentiments

don't make this great art. In fact, there should be a warning on the

package. The cliches (i.e. "Ooh, fragile flame," "There's a warmth in my

heart -- it haunts me when you're gone") and the syrupy music might

induce sugar shock.

What's simple may be true. It can be trite and boring, too.