Jenny Lewis - Acid Tongue
Ch-ch-changes. Jenny Lewis is fast becoming the Mr.Benn of pop (well,Ok Miss.Benn). A shapeshifter in the line of Madge or Dame David of Bowie, Jennifer is an old fashioned storyteller and performer. She's tried out minor league actress in Pleasantville, Indie Pop Queen in Rilo Kiley and Country troubadour on 2004's fantabulous solo debut Rabbit Fur Coat. On solo deux she's getting fitted out in Laura Nyro's gospel blues with button badges of Johnny Ray and Gene Vincent for extra Vixen.
If you know Nyro's music, particularly And When I Die and The Bells, you'll have a good idea of what to expect here. White gospel piano, twisted blues and tales of tragic broken hearts. It may be an old coat but she wears it well. She nails Nyro's fallen angel falsetto and once or twice could even pass for Kate Bush. Rarely does she dust off the Pop voice and it helps give the whole thing its own drawer in Lewis' colourful wardrobe.
Two of the songs conjure up Lennon's ghost too.On Black Sand and Godspeed you can imagine (cough) JL sat in that ol' white room with the other JL pounding away on that ol' grande blanc. A spell nearly shattered when Godspeed's “What are we gonna do-hoo” threatens a toe curling “Miss Dynamite eee hee” moment but is pardoned by a heaven sent melody and a lyrical prayer,“keep the lighthouse in sight”.
It's not all piano gospel – the 9-minute epic The Next Messiah is Green Day's Jesus Of Suburbia reborn as a hillbilly skiffle boogie. There's an edge of B52's lunacy in there too. See Fernando meanwhile crashes like Johnny Cash driving a freightrain through your living room with one hand flicking a cigarette and the other combing gel through its quiff. Like the Man In Black's One Piece At A Time it's rap music but not as we know it. All aboard! The electricity runs through to Jack Killed Mom, a typical Lewis tale of joyful tragedy, played as a hootenanny hop of The White Stripes and Shangri-La's. As loud as the 50-Feet Woman with a surreal rap section, it'll be a riot live and it's hard not to applaud when the final drum rolls.
The production is rawer than on both her debut and the last Rilo record which was pelted with eggs due to its glossy coat. This one's got a raucous edge and at times a 'live' ragged feel which could step right into Jack White's old size nines. To prove we're in Tinseltown, we've also got a few guests giving it a Hollywood feel (Elvis Costello, Chris Robinson, Zooey Deschanel) but luckily none of them get to carry a big placard boasting "Yes kids, it's really me".
Lewis is celebrated for her sassy lyrics and it's a relief to find them on good form. Her storybook tales of confessional suburbia follow in the tradition of realist writers like Raymond Carver and like the best Americana lyricists (Springsteen, Young) the lyrics stand up in print. So it's odd there's no lyric sheet but the sleeve warning “Do not drop this record” is cute. Lead single CarpetBaggers (which features the “Bloody hell where have you been hiding?” Costello cameo) has a typical Lewis bankrobber payoff, 'I'm gonna treat you kind, I'm gonna rob you blind'. She's Hollywood but she's Black Dahlia Hollywood, “It's a bad man's world and I'm a bad girl”. It's enough to put steam in a man's strides.
The title track is a highlight, it would've fitted perfectly on Rabbit and even echoes Rise Up With Fists! in its verses. No frills, an acoustic guitar and some honey BV's, it's the work of a top songwriter and after the darker openers feels like the sun rising. The best is saved 'til the end though, Sing A Song For Them is a last waltz under the mirrorball, the sad girl on the doorstep singing for “the fairies on main street”. It's like a slo-mo Waiting On A Friend by The Stones. Great way to bring the curtain down.
The playing is first rate, the lyrics are sly, entertaining and knowing and the vocals are superb. It's a dynamic, consistently listenable album and sounds like it was a blast to make. Lewis is no doubt having fun trying on different personas and avoiding being framed. But it's not flawless, it lacks the debut's flow and out of context it's hard to say how many songs could individually stand up on their own. There are no hits here but you realise this is an artist admirably in it for the long haul and not an MTV burst. Two songs (highlight Acid Tongue and Trying My Best) sooo want to fly out of the cage too but are restrained from bustin' loose. It's a brave but mildly frustrating decision. It's speedy release after Under The Blacklight suggests it could've done with another few weeks in the fitting room.
A sexy mischievous drunk of a record, staggering in a zigzag and with the odd hiccup. It's all ripped tights, broken heels and last night's Disney ballgown now a mess of cigarette smoke and Vodka. But hey it's still smiling.