Jenny Lewis had just finished playing a show with her band Rilo Kiley, when Conor Oberst, Mr. Bright Eyes himself, approached her and asked if she would record an album for his new label, Team Love. Although she was nonplussed at the time, Lewis most assuredly found her voice on Rabbit Fur Coat, her exceptionally charming solo debut.
The disc’s dozen tracks were two years in gestation, with songs penned in the Rilo Kiley tour van, rehearsed around sound-checks, and finally recorded last year in the San Fernando Valley and Portland, Oregon. The Watson Twins, a pair of identically mellifluous sister singers, had Jenny’s back the whole way, painting their own hymnal tones around the corners of this poetic album of full of unselfconscious confessions.
Largely autobiographical, the words behind the songs are the stories inside the girl. This is most pronounced on the album’s title track, which underscores the narcissistic parenting style of Lewis’ mother. Equal parts parable and memoir, the song details the woman’s sad obsession over a rabbit fur coat, which is a symbol of prosperity for her. As a child, Jenny’s mom had the garment stolen from her. To reclaim it and its powers, she pimps out young Jenny to network TV. Yes, folks, our currently cool heroine was once a dorky child star, landing guest spots on middling American television shows like “Murder, She Wrote” and “Mr. Belvedere.”
In addition to writing directly about the twisted fairytale of her childhood, Lewis takes a levelheaded look at the complications of love. The already bumpy road to happy couplehood becomes even more fraught when your lover is also your bandmate, as was once the case with Jenny and Rilo Kiley co-founder Blake Sennett. The messiness of romantic entanglements surfaces on the achingly catchy “You Are What You Love,” when Lewis sings: “Every morning upon waking / To you I’m a symbol or a monument / Your rite of passage to fulfillment / But I’m not yours for the taking”. Or, from “Melt Your Heart”: “When you’re kissing someone who’s too much like you / It’s like kissing on a mirror”.
A gifted lyricist, Jenny Lewis is also a very fine singer, landing on each note with just the right touch. She can belt it out with a soulful, Neko Case-like clarion call (“Big Guns”), put on a Lucinda Williams drawl (“Rise up with Fists!”), or purr like Margot Timmins (“Happy”). The musical stylings of all of these talented ladies echo throughout the accompaniment on Rabbit Fur Coat, but Lewis takes these elements back to their roots. Without copping a retro sound, Jenny has tapped into a fifty-year-old Americana, finding that sweet spot at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll when folk, country, gospel and vocal pop were all melding together, but before the increasingly heavy backbeat of rock displaced the lilting shuffle of Sun Studios-era rockabilly. Acoustic guitars roll their melodies over brushed snares, and occasionally a slide guitar surfaces. Even the most driving number, a cover of the Traveling Wilbury’s “Handle with Care” that features Oberst in the role of Bob Dylan, is performed with restraint. The name of the game is minimalism, with the backing tracks always remaining where they belong: in the background, behind Jenny’s vocals. This holds true, too, for the Watson Twins. Their sweet sopranos softly enfold the record, wrapping the material in an aura of O Brother-ly warmth.
Rabbit Fur Coat will likely be the most refreshing album you’ll hear all year. It is art without artifice in a crass and boorish age. The music is pretty and pure, but without being coy, or cutesy, or naïve. The lyrics are open and direct, but so much finer and more carefully crafted than the bloggy spewings of her emo cohorts. In case you couldn’t tell, I am musically smitten. Go on now and get yourself a Rabbit Fur Coat. You’ll be smitten, too.