Jenny Lewis: Acid Tongue

Jer Fairall
Photo: Autumn de Wilde

There's just enough good here to suggest that the next Jenny Lewis album might be something worth looking forward to.

Jenny Lewis

Acid Tongue

Label: Reprise
US Release Date: 2008-09-23
UK Release Date: 2008-09-22

Has Elvis Costello’s professional relationship with Jenny Lewis started rubbing off on her music? Costello has been a vocal fan of both Lewis and her sometimes-band Rilo Kiley dating as far back as the band’s 2004 release More Adventurous, even granting her a prominent role singing backup on his latest album, Momofuku. Costello now makes his own appearance -- amid a star studded guest list that also includes Black Crowe Chris Robinson, Zooey Deschanel, M. Ward and boyfriend Jonathan Rice, on Lewis’ second non-Rilo Kiley outing -- Acid Tongue courtesy of a rousing duet on “Carpetbaggers,” but his presence and influence is felt throughout the entire recording.

Unfortunately, the Elvis Costello that permeates Acid Tongue is not the genius songwriter of classics like This Year’s Model and King of America or even the professional-grade one of All This Useless Beauty and When I Was Cruel. Rather, it is the Elvis Costello of awkward genre detours like Almost Blue and Kojak Variety, the brilliant lyricist and melodic craftsman who continues to force himself upon genres he clearly admires but possesses no innate talent for. Acid Tongue finds Jenny Lewis in a similarly erratic mood, lurching through various roots-rock poses in search of authentication that comes, all too often, at the detriment of her music.

In a way, it makes perfect sense that Lewis would steer towards a more back-to-basics approach at this point in her career. Rabbit Fur Coat, her 2006 collaboration with gospel sisters the Watson Twins, found her dabbling with folk and country with much success, the stripped-down musical settings finding a natural coherence with Lewis’ crystalline vocals and gift for vibrantly detailed narratives. Though arguably meant to whisk Lewis out of the indie ghetto and into more widely acclaimed “singer-songwriter” territory (a career trajectory concurrently being pursued by friend Conor Oberst, who released Rabbit Fur Coat on his Team Love label and played Bob Dylan on the album’s cover of the Traveling Wilbury’s cover “Handle With Care”), Rabbit Fur Coat felt like a logical progression from More Adventurous, the album that saw Lewis’ songwriting making remarkable strides in such a brief time since Rilo Kiley’s quaint indie pop outings.

Lewis followed up Rabbit Fur Coat’s minor triumph by leading Rilo Kiley through last year’s Under the Blacklight, a bizarre failure that cast the singer as a kitten-with-a-whip vixen, vamping through a collection of songs about the sleazy underworld of the L.A. sex trade amidst the band’s suddenly slick, even ostentatious, musical polish. Lewis insists that Rilo Kiley made the record that they had always wanted to, rather than having Under the Blacklight’s hyper-sexual gloss forced out of them by Warner Bros., but none of this made what was on the record sound any less forced or uncomfortable. That Lewis managed to maintain her integrity throughout speaks volumes of her prowess as a vocalist and songwriter, and if the album wound up something less than the catastrophe that it otherwise could have been purely as a result of her presence, its chilly critical reception has left her with, if anything, even more to prove this time around.

As the first album credited entirely to Lewis alone, the strangest thing about Acid Tongue winds up being just how vague it sounds, a snapshot of the artist in search of a coherent identity. We get Jenny Lewis as a blues mama (“The Next Messiah", “Jack Killed Mom”), a '70s soul singer (“Bad Man’s World”), a Feist-esque folkie (“Black Sand", “Pretty Bird”) and swaggering rock ‘n’ roll bandleader (“Fernando”). What we don’t get nearly enough of is Jenny Lewis the ace pop songstress, the storyteller whose knack for combining savage wit with breathtaking poignancy resonates throughout so much of her previous work. More so than even Under the Blacklight, where Lewis at least seemed willing to play along with material unworthy of her, Acid Tongue too often finds her lyrical talents pushed even further into the background in service of music that sounds like it could belong anywhere.

If Acid Tongue’s lyrical laziness is truly disappointing, it is at least a logical foreground for songs that do not demand the usual level of substance that Lewis provides. “Pretty Bird” and “Bad Man’s World,” in particular, subscribe to the jazz/blues propensity towards repetitive and broadly illustrative lyrical phrasing; the kind where the words are far less important than how they are sung. It is not that Lewis isn’t a lovely vocalist (she’s among my very favorites currently singing in any genre), its just that she can’t sing these songs. Send “Pretty Bird” to Beth Gibbons or “Bad Man’s World” to Bettye LaVette and they might become something; here they are just exhibits in Lewis’ sudden, confused tendency towards overreach.

The nearly nine-minute “The Next Messiah” is even more problematic. Described by Lewis as having been inspired by the song medleys on her mom’s old Barbara Streisand records, the song is actually a trenchant blues-rock stomp in the Led Zeppelin mode. Not only does this suggest a wildly confused convergence of stylistic influences, it provides a handy summation of everything that is flawed about the album’s brand of stylistic schizophrenia. Lewis sounds completely over her head on the song, proving that hers may be a strong but not particularly malleable talent. She does not yet seem ready to participate in music that does not put her voice and her words front and center.

Oddly, though, this is a problem that Acid Tongue itself seems to recognize somewhere around the album’s halfway point, where it suddenly starts behaving like the sequel to Rabbit Fur Coat that it was probably better off being all along. True, “Godspeed” and “Acid Tongue” itself sound every bit as influenced by the gospel leanings that drove her previous solo outing, but Lewis is actually allowed to just sing here, never sounding in losing competition with her surroundings. The graceful finale “Sing a Song", meanwhile, suggests that Lewis may not have ever needed the Watson Twins to go this route in the first place. “Tryin’ My Best” finds her attempting a full-on Dionne Warwick homage, precisely the kind of genre affectation that sinks so much of the rest of the album, but the entire song is subtle and underplayed enough that it just lets her strong, clear vocals shine, suggesting that if Lewis were to continue on in such a retro fashion that this would be the way to go.

Best of all, though, is that Elvis Costello duet “Carpetbaggers", which only further proves that Lewis, perhaps true to her acting roots, is at her strongest when given a full-bodied character to play in her songs. Not only is her own performance at its most energetic and convincing here, the song further enlivens Costello in a way that too few of his own recent outings seem to. Ironic, considering that Acid Tongue’s flaws strike me as being particularly Costello-ian in their mistaking reverence for certain musical genres as competence in them, but “Carpetbaggers” suggests that further pairings between the two might just be the thing to goad each of them towards their stronger musical instincts.

Of course, a deeply flawed album that manages to strike gold every now and then can be just as frustrating as an all-out failure, if not even more so. Particularly by front-loading the album with the bulk of its wayward experiments (in fact, swap the title track for the lugubrious “Jack Killed Mom” in the play order and the entire second half of the record makes for a nice little EP), the overall momentum of Acid Tongue is severely stalled by the time the listener approaches the stronger material. There is, however, just enough good here to suggest that the next Jenny Lewis album (and odds are it will be a Jenny Lewis album; her vague statements about the status of Rilo Kiley suggest a long, if not permanent, hiatus) might be something worth looking forward to, even if she appears to be stumbling much more frequently than usual these days.


Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.