Saturday, October 11, 2008

(Needless?) Nitpicking on Jenny Lewis

(Note: As I've mentioned before, music writing isn't my strong point. I'm trying to rectify this, so accept my apologies if this post is a bit scattered.)

(Note II: As I wrote this, I had the title in mind, but had this nagging feeling that I had seen the word "nitpicking" used very recently in another headline. This turned out to be correct, as it was used in a Culture Snob posting about Sarah Palin. Granted, this article and that one deal with two very different women, but I feel that I owe it to Jeff (the creator of Culture Snob) to acknowledge this. I'm sure he wouldn't accuse me of plagiarizing an essay title, but to me it's the right thing to do.)

I recently bought Acid Tongue, the latest solo album by Jenny Lewis. It's as solo as a musician can get, considering the appearances by Elvis Costello, Zooey Deschanel, Chris Robinson, et. al. My purchase of this disc came about in this manner: I heard it was coming out a few months back and got very excited. The release date came and went, and I finally came around to picking it up about two weeks after the fact. I listened to it, enjoyed it, and am left wondering if it will become part of my laptop listening rotation. I'm also left wondering: am I really a Jenny Lewis fan?

At first glance, "Yes, absolutely" is what I would say if someone asked me this on the street. As muddied as the genre "indie rock" is becoming as a definable entity, Lewis has undoubtedly been one of its reigning queens. She first came to my attention a few years ago, when I really enjoyed her faint, beautiful vocals on a few Postal Service tracks. She's physically beautiful, too, but this has nothing to do with her talent. I think I was fourteen the last time I bought an album based on the attractiveness of the female musician in question. Maybe it's strange that I'm questioning my fondness for a vocalist based on my feelings for an album that I enjoyed. Perhaps this essay is my feeble attempt to make sense of this. I was never really big on Rilo Kiley, but I only have one of their albums, More Adventurous. It was an enjoyable power pop album, but I could name a hundred better discs. In the interest of not going off on too many tangents, I'm going to stick to her solo work.


2006's Rabbit Fur Coat was a collaboration with the Watson Twins, but it was undeniably Jenny Lewis. Her songwriting was impressive, but most of the album's acclaim came via the song "Handle With Care," a Traveling Wilburys cover. While Lewis gave an excellent interpretation, the standout for me was the song "It Wasn't Me," an aching, bluesy song that truly deserves the hyperbole of "haunting." Any discussion of Lewis's best efforts has to include this song. Overall, even the album's up-tempo numbers had a tinge of sadness and echoes of smoky bar laments. The more I think about it, this might be why I'm confused as to how Acid Tongue affected me. Was I expecting the same thing as Rabbit Fur Coat instead of listening for what it is? If so, that might be a first, a listener taking the blame instead of doling it out to the musician.

I think part of my apathetic view of this album is that I wasn't expecting what I feel is its core--which is normally a good thing when a piece of art goes in a different direction than one assumes. Is she trying to emulate classic female vocalists? It sort of feels that way, since, in some way, she's wrapping an old-fashioned voice around contemporary lyrics. However, there's a touch of originality missing that was evident on Rabbit Fur Coat. To me, it sounds like her voice is trying to catch up to a given song's intensity, but it cannot quite catch up. On a positive flip side, she oftentimes sounds a lot younger than she is, giving her work a hint of vulnerability. For example, Neko Case is arguably my favorite female vocalist, but even when she's trying to sound softer (i.e. trying to soften her voice to Jenny Lewis's style), she always sounds tougher and can't always nail the atmosphere of innocence. Sure, these might be intangible qualities, but every listener picks up on different ideas and intentions in a given song.

Then again, as the title of this piece implies, am I just nitpicking? Am I merely trying to rationalize that I didn't like Acid Tongue as much as Rabbit Fur Coat?

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