Jules Shear

The man with the magic voice

Shear has written quite a few hit pop songs in his time, but he's never had a hit of his own - all of his hits were covers by other acts. Upon realizing what a gifted, melodic and highly commercial pop songwriter he is, one wonders why he has never hit the big time - until that is, one realizes exactly why Shear has never achieved stardom: his voice. To say that Shear has the absolute worst voice in pop music is not an overstatement on my part - I've heard plenty of terrible singers in my time, but Shear is the only one who sounds like Kermit the Frog. It's not that he can't sing - he tries his best - but he's been genetically cursed with an inferior set of vocal chords that strangle out this high-pitched, squeaking whine that has the effect of nails on chalkboard (I use that cliche almost literally - at times his voice does imitate exactly that). The other problem with Shear is his unfortunate ignorance of production and arrangement, which leaves all of his albums sounding terribly dated in an overproduced '80s way; musically there's nothing special or interesting going on except for his songwriting. As such my ratings on this page are generally low (except for the first two Polar Bears albums, when he had a solid working band behind his songs) - his albums are, in my view, more houses for songs for other people to cover properly later, collections of demos for other acts to turn into hits.

The Funky Kings: The Funky Kings (1976)

A sort of supergroup of L.A. songwriters, including Jack Tempchin, who wrote several hits for the Eagles. Shear rates three songs on this disc, which flopped. I've seen it cheap and may eventually get around to picking up a copy.

Jules & the Polar Bears: Got No Breeding (1978) ***1/2

The first two Polar Bears albums are easily the best records Shear has ever released, in large part due to the fact that for once Shear has some decent musical backing and isn't buried in mindless piles of synthesizers. The Polar Bears aren't a great band, merely a decent, hard-working one, and though the only other member to make his mark was keyboard player Stephen Hague (as a producer), the arrangements are generally kept driving and sharp, highlighted by Richard Bredice's tight guitar hooks. Shear's voice is his voice, but the batch of songs he's written are most hooky, melodic gems, rocking and rollicking examples mainstream pop-rock circa the late '70s, with a slight New Wave flavor. "Lovers By Rote," is the best song, and other classics include "You Just Don't Wanna Know," "Black Fever Sleep," and "Shadows Break."

Jules & the Polar Bears: Phonetics (1979) ***1/2

The second Polar Bears album offers more of the same and is barely discernible from the first in terms of sound and quality, except that Hague's keyboards are more upfront and the band sounds more assured and New Wave-ish. Shear reins in some of the rapid-fire vocal excesses of his singing on the debut (he's no longer cramming in so many syllables you can't make out the words), and is a bit easier to take, but... his voice is still his voice. "Good Reason," is the most immediately catchy song, but the real stroke is the eery, plodding reggae-tinged ballad, "Smell of Home." The rest of the songs are of a similar strength; fans of catchy pop music should like the first two Polar Bears albums, if they can handle Shear's voice - which basically eliminates 95% of the people who like catchy pop music, but oh well.

Jules & the Polar Bears: Bad For Business (rec. 1980; rel. 1996) **1/2

The Polar Bears' third album was rejected by Columbia; it's more of the same formula as the first two albums, but with Hague's keyboards even more dominant and with considerably weaker material. "Over and Over," sounds like a decent Cars outtake, with a nice big chorus; "In Love With The Ballet," is a slice of hyper-hyper frenetic pop; "Only A Motion," is decent ballad that I can imagine someone else covering well (and vastly improving); and "Problems," has a naggingly catchy melodic chorus. However, the rest of the album doesn't catch up with those first four songs, and garbage like "Round Peg," and "Peg (Round)" reminds me that "daffy" humor too often has no place in pop music because most jokes rock stars tell aren't very funny. I mean, add up all the jokes you've heard on most records (excluding comedy acts like Weird Al and Ween) and you've got more strained juvenile humor and less genuinely funny moments than Porky's. Porky's -- god, what an awful movie. If it's going to be trash, then it ought to at least be fun, entertaining trash. Not that this album reminds me of that movie, I just got off on a tangent - what this reminds me of actually is a Todd Rundgren who can't sing.

Watch Dog (1983)

Shear's first solo album was overseen by the heavy hand of Todd Rundgren, and produced the hit "All Through the Night," when later covered by Cyndi Lauper, though "Whispering Your Name," is actually catchier.

The Eternal Return (1985) **

Shear's solo albums are considerably less involving than his work with the Polar Bears, since Shear apparently has no talent except for writing songs. He's a good songwriter, but sometimes it's hard to tell since you not only have to get past that voice but also the horrible, dated mid-'80s production on this release - his songs practically drown in all the synths. "If She Knew What She Wants," became a hit for the Bangles, and it's easily the catchiest and most bearable song on here. The duet, "Here She Comes," is a good idea since one only has to hear Shear's voice on half of the song, but it's also the only other song on the record that stands out.

The Reckless Sleepers: Big Boss Sounds (1988) **

Forming a new band, Shear comes out sounding exactly the same as always. Luckily production values in 1988 were somewhat better than in 1985, but Shear is still hurting his songs by delivering them with such flimsy and dated backing. "If We Never Meet Again," was much improved by Roger McGuinn, and there are several others of that quality that I wouldn't mind hearing other folks cover -- "Notting Hill Gate," "Before It Bursts," "Mary Lou," -- all on side two, which is actually stronger than side one. Like I said, Shear's albums are best seen as demos of songs for those on the lookout for good songs to cover, and this album is no exception to this pattern.

With Steve Kilbey: The Third Party

A matchup with the Church frontman.

The Great Puzzle (1992)
Healing Bones (1994)
Between Us (1998)

Someone apparently had the bright idea, considering Shear's vocal limitations, to team him up in a series of duets with several other more famed performers. Those trading off vocals with Shear include Carol King, Freedy Johnston, Paula Cole, Amy Rigby, Rosanne Cash, and Ron Sexsmith. Hopefully the strategy works...

Reader Comments

Samuel I. Mendales, smendales@wn.net

just stumbled on to your review of the work of Jules Shear...

dispite the fact that I think you were accurate but a little over the top in damning his voice and production mishaps, I found your reviews of the first two Polar Bears albums brilliant and refreshing...(that is after I got over my astonishment that someone else [other than Jules' mother] had heard fenetiks.) I think the saving grace on all three albums is the muscular, lyrical guitar work of Bredice- I will never forgive Yamaha for the DX7 and all the bad music spawned by the horrible 80's reliance on the synth. Where is he (Bredice) now?

Anyway, thanks for your obsessions which mirror my own.


I am not entirely sure who this reviewer has been listening to, for it surely is not Jules Shear. I have enjoyed his music, especially his voice, for over twenty years and eagerly await any new release. The fact that he has never become popular with the masses just proves that the masses are rarely right-how else do you explain the Spice Girls? What am I saying? This reviewer probably thinks they are the most talented singer-nonsongwriters that exist. Anyway, I guess we can only speak for ourselves, and I love his music. Listen to the song You Can Let Go Now from the Raisins in the Sun CD and tell me anyone can write better music.

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The Eternal Return