The Phoenix Network:
About  |  Advertise
Adult  |  Moonsigns  |  Band Guide  |  Blogs  |  In Pictures
CD Reviews  |  Classical  |  Live Reviews  |  Music Features

Roots canals

The country excursion of Jenny Lewis, the Elected, and Neko Case
By MATT ASHARE  |  March 14, 2006

PLAYING IT STRAIGHT: On Rabbit Fur Coat, Jenny Lewis splits the difference between Rilo Kiley and Patsy Cline.Punk’s courtship of Americana has always been a natural one. Perhaps because Nashville hasn’t been open to genuine roots music since the pre-punk era, and because the ethos of punk has dovetailed with revved-up roots rock and country’s bygone outlaw legacy, finding room for roots in punk has never been a challenge. And the whole notion of Americana, with its own mythos and a catalogue of familiar sounds and styles, pays punk back by giving it legitimacy. This symbiotic relationship runs like a thread through much of even the earliest American punk, from the bluegrassy Meat Puppets to the eclectic Minutemen to the rockabilly-inflected X. It was inevitable that an alternative-era band like Uncle Tupelo would evolve to consummate the marriage under the banner of alt-country.

Indie rock, though, hasn’t always followed in punk’s footsteps. A couple more steps removed from the original rebellion, it’s been more about creating scenes than sounds. For much of the past decade and a half, loose indie collectives like Elephant Six have delved back into pre-punk archives, to the melodic tricks of the Brian Wilson Beach Boys, the psychedelic Beatles, and their contemporaries. Of course, strains of country music are woven as deeply into the fabric of indie’s wide-open æsthetic as anything else. But more often than not, the outlaw country music of the rebel is no longer the focus. Instead, Americana becomes just another set of stylistic motifs available to the songwriter, as well a valuable means of identifying oneself as an outsider artist. Think of it as the Palace syndrome: Will Oldham has made a career of playing the role of the untrained genius untainted by the urban devil of studio polish. You can even hear traces of that attitude in less obscure, more listener-friendly and commercially developed product like that of the female-fronted LA band Rilo Kiley, an indie foursome who’ve followed in the footsteps of one-time label mates Death Cab for Cutie, from their humble beginnings on the tiny Barsuk to a major-label deal with Warners, thanks in part to a little help from The OC.

The typical Rilo Kiley song — the kind you’d expect to hear in an OC episode — relies on Blake Sennett’s bright jangle-and-hum guitar hooks, a polite but sturdy backbeat, and the alluring vocals of the clean-voiced Jenny Lewis. Childhood demons are exorcized, twentysomething insecurities are revealed, and a certain salvation is offered in the form of an almost hypnotic melody that hints at something beautiful just over the horizon. An apparently doomed relationship (“You’re bad news . . . ”) turns out to be a good thing in “Portions for Foxes”; the cynicism of “It’s a Hit” resolves on an upbeat note when Lewis realizes, somewhat wryly, that she’s singing that hit. It’s pure power pop with barely a hint of twang until you reach the deeper cuts, where you’ll find Sennett deploying pedal-steel bends, or Lewis toying, against a spare acoustic backdrop, with what might be a melody pinched from an Appalachian ballad.

Sennett, who shares songwriting duties with Lewis and sings occasionally, has along with RK bassist Daniel Brummel spent his spare time exploring rootsier tones in the side project the Elected. While Lewis was off recording her Postal Service vocals, Sennett convened the Elected for 2004’s Me First (Sub Pop). This year, he and Lewis have again taken time off from Rilo Kiley. Sennett has reconvened the Elected for a second Sub Pop album, Sun, Sun, Sun, and a tour that brings them to the Paradise on March 24. Lewis, meanwhile, takes a major left turn on her de facto solo debut, Rabbit Fur Coat (on Conor Oberst’s Team Love label). The disc is actually credited to Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins, a pair of Kentucky-bred, gospel-trained harmonizers named Chandra and Leigh; the trio will play the Somerville Theatre this Friday, March 17. The entire project might reek of slumming it in a double wide if, say, Lewis were to adopt a Southern twang. Instead, she plays it straight. There are tunes here — “You Are What You Love” (“and not what loves you back”) — that even with the spare, strummy production would be at home on a Rilo Kiley album.

Elsewhere, Rabbit Fur Coat gives Lewis the opportunity to explore some of the subtleties of that fresh, clean-scrubbed, Ivory-soap voice of hers. It’s what gives the occasional f-bomb or “asshole” she drops its impact. She doesn’t resort to cheap tricks: the closest thing to a novelty is a cover of the Traveling Wilburys nugget “Handle with Care,” in full 12-string Byrdsy production with Oberst, album producer Matt “M.” Ward, and Death Cab frontman Ben Gibbard helping out. It’s a veritable indie hootenanny, and an opportunity for Lewis to wrap that pretty voice of hers around “I’ve been fucked off and I’ve been fooled” without its seeming gratuitous. Beyond that, Rabbit Fur Coat does exactly what a solo project should: it allows Lewis to test some new waters without drowning in the deep end. When she sings “My Mama never warned me about my own destructive appetite” against a slow, front-porch swing, she’s splitting the difference between Rilo Kiley and Patsy Cline with deference toward both, and with a playfulness that’s as endearing as it is infectious.

1  |  2  |   next >
Related: Practice makes precious, Photos: Deer Tick + Jenny Lewis at House of Blues, Watson Twins, More more >
  Topics: Music Features , Alternative and Indie Rock, Ben Gibbard, Blake Sennett,  More more >
  • Share:
  • RSS feed Rss
  • Email this article to a friend Email
  • Print this article Print

Today's Event Picks
--> -->
Share this entry with Delicious

 See all articles by: MATT ASHARE

RSS Feed of for the most popular articles
 Most Viewed   Most Emailed 

  |  Sign In  |  Register
Phoenix Media/Communications Group:
Copyright © 2009 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group