ONE-LISTEN VERDICT: Jenny Lewis’ second solo album boasts a long list of collaborators that includes Elvis Costello, Zooey Deschanel, Chris Robinson, Jonathan Rice, and M. Ward, as well as “all analog, no Pro-Tools sessions.” That last part may sound like a gimmick, but it’s the very key to the aesthetic success of the album. Hearing Lewis and her band through an analog filter is like going to the beach for the first time in years and remembering what the waves sound like.
But while the album’s sonics are near-undeniable, the songs are more hit-or-miss. The breakdown goes something like this: four solidly enjoyable songs; four songs that skew a little more toward an iffy, bluesy territory; one goofy story song that will bug some people; one bland song that nobody will care about; and one really crappy song.
“Fernando” and “Carpetbaggers” (featuring a duet with Elvis Costello!) stand out as rollicking testaments to the fun and sheer force of well-turned-out rock. Just don’t overthink “Fernando” lyrically, or you’ll start getting the creeping feeling that Jenny Lewis’ songwriting has devolved into absurd fluff. (Come to think of it, “Carpetbaggers” doesn’t make much sense either, but both songs are, at least, incredibly fun musically.) Here’s Jenny Lewis performing “Fernando” on Pancake Mountain:
“Godspeed” is sleepy and a little blah the first time around, but–and I realize how much ridicule I’m exposing myself to with this comment, and I say it only because I very genuinely feel this way–there are serious shades of Abbey Road-era Beatles in the chorus–specifically, the chord progression and the bass line when she sings “You don’t make it easy / On me / What am I supposed to do with you / You won’t let me help you / Won’t you?” (Just saying.)
But the best song is the title track. With nothing but an acoustic guitar, some low-end accompaniment, and a bit of harmonizing, Lewis proves that her best work comes when she focuses on singing and songwriting. I was a vocal opponent of the most recent Rilo Kiley album because I felt that it lacked the emotional depth and melancholy that distinguished Lewis from her peers. With “Acid Tongue” she’s back in the saddle again, at least for three and a half minutes, thanks to lyrics like “To be lonely is a habit / Like smoking or taking drugs / And I’ve quit them both / But man was it rough.”
My advice to people coming to Jenny Lewis for the first time: Skip the first four tracks, all of which fall under “iffy.” “Black Sand” has a cool bass line and a truly awesome string part, but Lewis is for some reason experimenting with the tip-top of her vocal register, and it’s really just kind of weird. “Pretty Bird” and “Badman’s World” are murky, bluesy songs about… the noirish aspects of life or something. (The abstract, aimless lyrics don’t make it very clear.). I have a feeling that “The Next Messiah” is going to be the show-stopping number at concerts; it’s very gritty and powerful, but it’s just too long, and falls on the silly side of melodramatic. Cool lead guitar riff, though.
“Jack Killed Mom” is the goofy story song. It’s sort of a free-floating flotsam of nonsense and it sounds a lot like a White Stripes song–a good White Stripes song, though. “Sing a Song for Them”–an ode to the forgotten losers of the world–is the sonic equivalent of a yawn that saves itself from total worthlessness with the lyric “The bric-a-brac-finding housewives losing their minds.” And, finally, the obligatory total miss: “Trying My Best to Love You”. Why? The second line of the song is “Our love is thicker than angel wings.” That is an atrocious lyric, and the song itself is an equally drippy mess.
But putting aside the the specific missteps, there’s just something so tangibly honest about this album. It’s a throwback to the lush sound of the ’70s, when music was big enough to have an excessive number of instruments thrown onto every track; when men were men, and producers knew how to record a bass track. It’s a big album with a few big problems, but in the end it’s braver and more fun than a lot of what I’ve heard lately.
WHERE TO HEAR IT: MySpace.