Monday, September 22, 2008

Review: Jenny Lewis - Acid Tongue

This review appears in edited form on North By Northwestern.

As far as solo albums go, Jenny Lewis' eventual separation from her band Rilo Kiley was fairly obvious. Over the course of their career, Lewis had taken more and more of a lead role, overshadowing her band mates in public fascination, if not always in talent (I still have a giant soft spot for Blake Sennett). When Lewis came out with her debut solo effort Rabbit Fur Coat with the help of the Watson Twins in 2005, the surprise wasn't that she had done solo work on a Rilo Kiley break, but that she'd switched genres. That first album dabbled in gospel and country, leaving us all wondering if she'd gone all Nashville on us for good.

Lewis' follow-up solo effort Acid Tongue takes us in a completely new direction for her. She isn't so much concerned with playing a different genre, but changing a perception. Her first album created a good-girl image; here she's at work deconstructing that image, dirtying it up and doing her best to go bad. Much like Under the Blacklight created a seedy, unfamiliar atmosphere for Rilo Kiley, this album is forward-thinking, if not as strong as her debut.

I'm not sure what it is about this year, but a good amount of records are starting off with lackluster tracks, and Acid Tongue unfortunately falls into that category. The worst offender is probably "The Next Messiah", which is an eight-minute-plus medly that sounds like the black sheep child of The Who and one of Green Day's punk operetta's from American Idiot. It's got too many undercooked ideas packed into one track, and for the first four songs on the record, Lewis sounds too constrained, too caught up in trying to force a change in her perception.

Thankfully the title track comes in at just the right time to shift gears completely. "Acid Tongue" is exactly the kind of catharsis the album needs to shake off the frills and heavy production clogging the music so far. Lewis has been performing a lot of these songs live for years, including the title track, and they sound so well-travelled. Backed by a country-tinged chorus of helping voices, Lewis strips everything down to a very real image of herself. The line "To be lonely is a habit / like smoking or taking drugs / and I've quit them both / but man was it rough" does more for her than anything in the behemoth "The Next Messiah."

From the title track on Acid Tongue plays like a completely different record. It sound freer, more in tune with going for broke and having fun while maintaining an edge. "Carpetbaggers" is an easy standout that maintains some country twangs of Fur Coat but rocks more than any track on that album, and the macabre storytelling of "Jack Killed Mom" keeps with the darker progression both Lewis and her band have been taking through their career. Where gospel invaded her debut, there are bits of soul sprinkled liberally through the later tracks on Lewis' sophomore effort, and she isn't afraid to let her voice explore that style.

After two records, it's still hard to gauge whether Lewis is better off without her band. There certainly aren't full arrangements on the album that could've done with a little guitar meddling from Blake Sennett, but with a guest list that contains Elvis Costello, M. Ward, Zooey Deschanel, and Lewis' boyfriend Jonathan Rice, there's no shortage of star power. Lewis has the chops to create a cohesive and compelling tune on her own, but Acid Tongue stumbles out of the gate with a few weak songs. That isn't to say there aren't very strong tracks later in the record, but one wonders if she had the whole band together if those kinks could've been worked out.

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