Picks and Pans Review: The Great Puzzle

updated 02/10/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/10/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

Jules Shear

After his spare but labored 1989 outing, The Third Party, Shear here returns to winning form. Not since 1985's The Eternal Return has the acclaimed if obscure singer-songwriter delivered a record this relaxed and assured. Maybe it's something in the Catskills water near Woodstock, N.Y., where Shear lives. His disc, like the most recent one from fellow Woodstock convert Graham Parker, is finely turned, personal and direct.

Shear continues to find variety and beauty in standard song structures. There's the disillusioned heartache of his "We Were Only Making Love," the best Jackson Browne song Browne never wrote; "Jewel in a Cobweb," a scalding warning to a beauty who has been snared by a creep; and "The Sad Sound of the Wind," built on the springiest guitar riff since the Beatles' "You Can't Do That."

Shear's compositions have always sounded best in the mouths of others, as with the Bangles ("If She Knew What She Wants") and Cyndi Lauper ("All Through the Night"). That's because Jules's wan adenoidal voice makes him sound like Bob Dylan's younger brother. But get past the wobbly vocals, and what you have here is still a Shear pleasure. (Polydor)

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