Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis draws upon what’s right about Americana rock on her second solo release, Acid Tongue. The lead singer & guitarist/keyboardist of Rilo Kiley has been stretching her wings for a while now, including the jump to major label (first her band, now her solo work as well), then a solo record, and now a second. And she seems to have grown and learned along the way, as Acid Tongue imbibes America’s down-home country-blues without ever feeling dated or preserved in amber, retaining the hot blood that it so desperately needs.
Still perhaps best known as frontwoman for Rilo Kiley (or, before that, as the child actress star of Life with Lucy & Troop Beverly Hills…), Jenny Lewis first stepped out when she guest-spotted on Death Cab for Cutie’s Benjamin Gibbard’s own side-project, The Postal Service (most notably single “We Will Become Silhouettes”). And like Gibbard and his remarkable success with The Postal Service’s Give Up, Lewis found new fame with her own solo project, 2006’s Rabbit Fur Coat, working with The Watson Twins – and then even greater notoriety, back with her original band, thanks to Rilo Kiley’s Under the Blacklight last year. But unlike Gibbard & Death Cab’s critical success with their post-side release, Narrow Stairs (QRO review), Rilo Kiley relatively failed to impress when put Under the Blacklight. Thankfully, Lewis took what she didn’t use in those sessions – and perhaps some lessons, as well – to craft the altogether superior Acid Tongue.
Under the Blacklight (QRO review) saw Rilo Kiley pick and play from all sorts of American pop stylings, from ‘new country’ to sixties girl-pop, from Miami rhythms to Fleetwood Mac, without a solid underpinning to really hold it all together. Acid Tongue, however, sticks to dusty country-blues – more varied than the straight up country of Rabbit Fur Coat, but not lost to the over-produced wilds of Blacklight. There are still many back-roads one can wander without hitting the highway, and Lewis does.
Tongue starts with the high beauty of “Black Sand”, and while tracks like that, the slow soul-diva of “Badman’s World”, the carrying vox on “Godspeed”, and the heartfelt summing-up closer “Sing a Song” might at first note seem brought from out of her Fur Coat, they all have an underlying grandeur which sets them apart as it sustains, and even seduces. This all comes out best in the semi-autobiographical title track (about Lewis tripping at age fourteen – that’s Hollywood, for ya…), an old-time grand country lady-singer classical, which still remains fresh, even timeless.
While Lewis didn’t have The Watson Twins (who were working on their own new record), she wasn’t exactly alone, either, recruiting a ‘murderer’s row’ of indie-Americana all-stars, including M. Ward, Zooey Deschanel (the titular duo in She & Him – QRO album review), Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes – QRO album review), Benji Hughes (QRO album review), the one and only Elvis Costello, and even her own sister and father. In some ways, Lewis didn’t really need the back-up, as it is her voice that is dominant throughout: only on “Carpetbaggers” does a contribution really come to the fore – though when it is Elvis Costello’s, it can’t help but help the already swingin’ country-twang number. The all-star chorus behind “Tryin’ My Best” doesn’t really elevate the song above a high and pretty soul-torch. “The Next Messiah” was inspired by her absent musical troubadour father, Eddie Gordon, whose illness the previous year brought about a reconciliation and this piece; the down-home country is rich with dirty blues, but at nearly nine minutes, it feels too chock full of elements, like a couple of different-but related tracks halfway blended together, leaving different chunks, here and there.
Yet for all its beauty, not to mention the sultry-sly “Pretty Bird”, Acid Tongue is still perhaps sharpest when just havin’ fun. It only comes out first on middle track “See Fernando”, whose up-tempo rockabilly swing is a bracing and refreshing change on the record. The second half is a spicier, however, with “Carpetbaggers” and the penultimate “Jack Killed Mom”, a country-scoping world-wise blues that ends with a saloon-shaking stomp.
If Jenny Lewis fans & Rilo Kiley fans are like those of Mets & Yankees (or, maybe more appropriate this year, Cubs & White Sox…) – one can love one, but not the other – than 2008 might be, for Lewis, the year The Mets should have had: where the underdog overcomes the long-standing champ’s shadow to shine on their own. Under the Blacklight is the high-priced, imported slugger who choked in the bright lights, while Acid Tongue is the home-grown prospect, delivering another great year in the bigs – and what can be more American than that?…