When Jenny Lewis released her first solo album in 2006, it was her third high-profile career. She’d already enjoyed success as a child actor in the 1980s, appearing in movies like 1989’s The Wizard. She wound down her acting career to focus on music, forming Rilo Kiley with Blake Sennett in 1998. Rilo Kiley was still a going concern when Lewis released her solo debut Rabbit Fur Coat in 2006, but 2007’s Under the Blacklight was their last record.
Lewis has released four studio albums to date – each has its own identity, to the extent that it’s difficult to tell what Lewis’ actual musical personality is. Her solo material is also overshadowed by Rilo Kiley – she hasn’t written anything as iconic as ‘Portions for Foxes’ solo. But her honeyed voice and feisty lyrics keep her solo material entertaining, even when she heads into generic territory.
Jenny Lewis Album Reviews
Rabbit Fur Coat (with the Watson Twins)
Lewis’ first solo record was recorded while she was still a member of Rilo Kiley. The Watson Twins are co-credited along with Lewis; Leigh and Chandra Watson front an alternative country band, and released their debut record at the same time as Rabbit Fur Coat. The vocals of The Watson Twins give Rabbit Fur Coat a country sound, while the opener ‘Run Devil Run’ is pure gospel. The poised and minimalist sound, along with Lewis’ warm voice, also has traces of soul.
The single ‘Rise Up With Fists!!’ is a great taster for the parent record, with its warm sound and lovely backing vocals. Lewis’ voice sounds lovely on the soulful ‘Melt Your Heart’, while the title track is lovely and minimalist with Lewis only accompanied by acoustic guitar. The cover of Traveling Wilburys’ ‘Handle With Care’, with guest vocals from Ben Gibbard, Conor Oberst, and M. Ward, works but sounds a little out of place with its slick pop/rock sound.
Rabbit Fur Coat is an assured start to Lewis’ solo career – one she’s yet to better as a solo artist.
Acid Tongue grew out of jam sessions at Jonathan Wilson’s house in Laurel Canyon, where the participants would play songs by The Grateful Dead and JJ Cale. After the restraint of Rabbit Fur Coat and the commercial pop sound of Rilo Kiley’s Under The Blacklight, Acid Tongue was mostly recorded live in the studio on Lewis’ 32nd birthday. Lewis’ boyfriend, Johnathan Rice, is heavily involved, co-writing songs and co-producing, while Zooey Deschanel, Chris Robinson, and Cracker’s Davey Faragher are among a plethora of guests.
Like Jonathan Wilson’s own solo records, Acid Tongue has elements of Americana and psychedelia. It sounds great, but the material’s not as strong as Lewis’ previous solo record. Lewis is sometimes subsumed – particularly on the Elvis Costello duet ‘Carpetbaggers’, solely written by Rice. It’s impressive that the band recorded the lengthy, multi-part ‘Next Messiah’ live in the studio, but it doesn’t really justify its nine minutes of running time. There are nice tunes like ‘Black Sand’ and ‘See Fernando’, although the title track, with Lewis’ acoustic guitar only accompanied by vocals, is the highlight.
Acid Tongue is a fun romp through some Americana and psychedelia, but the songs aren’t strong enough for it to be one of Lewis’ best records.
Ryan Adams produced Lewis’ third solo album. Lewis has shared how Adams’ production techniques involved forcing her to appreciate Creed by playing them at ear-splitting volumes; this somehow furnished Lewis with a warm, radio-friendly sound. Beck is also credited with production, while guest musicians include Lou Barlow and The Watson Twins. The Voyager sounds like a warm Californian summer, but it’s sometimes too derivative for its own good.
The first two songs are both terrific, but also sound instantly familiar. ‘Head Underwater’ recalls a U2 anthem like ‘Beautiful Day’, while ‘She’s Not Me’ is basically Tom Petty’s ‘Free Fallin” with different words and a couple of extra parts. The “on and on” pre-chorus is lovely, while the bridge provides the emotional crux. Elsewhere The Voyager is pretty, with its glistening guitars. Lewis hits hard with the realisation that she’s “just another lady without a baby” in ‘Just One of the Guys’, and the folk-rock of ‘The New You’ is lovely.
The Voyager is a lovely record, just a little too derivative for its own good.
On The Line
2019’s On The Line is Lewis’ fourth solo album. Lewis lives near Laurel Canyon, and On The Line is a lush, singer-songwriter record that reflects the location. Lewis utilised vintage equipment previously used by Carole King. The stately I-V-IV chord sequence of ‘Hollywood Lawn’ echoes Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s ‘Helpless’. Lewis’ piano and vocals are supported by a stellar band, including drummers Jim Keltner and Ringo Starr, Beck, Don Was, Jason Faulkner, and Ryan Adams. Longtime Tom Petty sideman Benmont Tench turns in a wonderful organ solo on the opening ‘Heads Gonna Roll’.
Lewis had a lot to write about – leading up to On The Line, she dealt with the end of a twelve-year relationship with songwriter Johnathan Rice and the death of her mother. There are references to both events liberally scattered among the lyrics of On The Line. “You thought I was your muse/But all along it was you” is a cutting line from ‘Dogwood’, while ‘Little White Dove’ deals with her mother’s hospitalisation. Addiction and desire are common themes for On The Line. Lewis’ mother struggled with a heroin addiction, and ‘Wasted Youth’ features the line “I wasted my youth on a poppy.”
Most of these songs are introspective and based around Lewis’ piano, but she varies the formula just enough to keep things interesting. ‘Little White Dove’ rocks hard, despite containing some of the record’s most personal lyrics, while closer ‘Rabbit Hole’ is an upbeat singalong.
Sometimes these songs are too simple to hold up to repeated plays, but On The Line provides some elegant musical backdrops for Lewis’ hard-won wisdom.
The advance signs were promising for Lewis’s fifth album. She’s working with Dave Cobb, who’s produced a lot of good rootsy albums in the last few years. There’s a great cover, which evokes the Solid Gold Hits compilations of the 1970s.
The singles are strong – ‘Puppy and a Truck’, ‘Psychos’, and ‘Cherry Baby’ suggest a stronger album than the one that eventuated. Too much of the rest of the album is unremarkable country and soft-rock, echoes of earlier and better work – she explored a rootsy sound on Rabbit Fur Coat and On The Line to much better effect. Joy’all is a brief 32 minutes, and even at this short length, the quality is uneven.
Hopefully Joy’all is a temporary blip and Lewis can right her course with her next record.
10 Best Jenny Lewis Songs
Melt Your Heart
Heads Gonna Roll
She’s Not Me
Rise Up With Fists!!
Rabbit Fur Coat
Little White Dove
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