Jenny Lewis in the Country of Her Soul
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 25, 2006
The doors swung open, and out sashayed the beguiling Jenny Lewis, trailed by twin raven-haired backup singers, Chandra and Leigh Watson. "Run, devil, run," the three of them sang, belting high-lonesome harmonies a cappella and sans microphones as they walked onto the Birchmere band shell stage.
The entrance-as-exorcism had a chilling effect -- in the best possible way: Not even 30 seconds into the show Thursday, Lewis and her sidekicks had already given the crowd goose bumps.
Rapture was soon to follow in what was essentially Lewis's coming-out party as a country-soul chanteuse.
Though she's considered indie-rock royalty for her roles in Rilo Kiley and the side project Postal Service with Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard, Lewis, at 30, has taken a sharp turn -- down the dusty back roads of musical Americana -- on her stunning new semi-solo album, "Rabbit Fur Coat." (It's a solo CD in everything but name: While it's credited to "Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins," Lewis sings most of the lead parts, plays guitar throughout and wrote all of the material, save for a cover of the Traveling Wilburys' "Handle With Care.")
Gospelly, deliciously twangy and at times even torchy, "Rabbit Fur Coat" is loaded with conversational, bittersweet songs that echo Loretta Lynn, Laura Nyro and Patsy Cline, not to mention the neo-Americana siren Neko Case. The evocative tracks have a certain intimacy that Rilo Kiley's songs often lack, and so Tuesday, Lewis eschewed that band's catalogue to focus on her rootsy new material.
Backed by a superlative band that featured Lewis's boyfriend, Johnathan Rice, on acoustic guitar, Rilo Kiley's Jason Boesel on drums, Michael Runion on bass and Dave Scher on lap-steel guitar and Wurlitzer piano, Lewis showed off a supple, crystalline alto as she sang of heartbreak, family dysfunction and, especially, spirituality: The opening "Run Devil Run" was followed immediately by "The Big Guns," a rhythmic boot-stomper in which Lewis, over aggressive acoustic guitar finger-picking, wearily declared, "I've won hundreds at the track, but I'm not betting on the afterlife."
On the chorus-free country-rock number "The Charging Sky," backed by Scher's mournful lap-steel lines, Lewis seemed to change her mind, singing: "It's a sure-fire bet that I'm gonna die, so I'm taking up praying on Sunday nights." But, she added: "It's not that I believe in your almight, but I might as well. As insurance or bail."
In the churchy "Born Secular," over a stripped-down drum loop and atmospheric Wurlitzer chords, Lewis and the Watson Twins sang that "God goes where he wants, and who knows where he is?" At which point, Lewis, her voice reaching higher than at any other point during the performance, alone declared: "Not in me!"
Or is he? After a doo-wop cover of the Shirelles' defiant old girl-group song, "I Met Him on a Sunday," Lewis concluded the hour-long show with a spirited reading of the gospel song "Cold Jordan," whose let-Jesus-lead lyrics she sang between sips of a Corona.
Religion isn't necessarily a new lyrical concern for Lewis -- she co-authored Rilo Kiley's "The Absence of God." But questions of spirituality abound on "Rabbit Fur Coat," giving the album and Lewis's current tour a confessional, decidedly personal feel. Ditto for songs like the loping, heart-sore "Happy" and the stark, elegiac "It Wasn't Me," both of which were standouts on stage.
But the highlight of the show was "Rabbit Fur Coat's" title track, an allegorical lullaby about a girl whose mother's greed leads to a lifetime of suffering for both. A former child actor, Lewis has insisted in interviews that the song isn't autobiographical. Still, singing alone, on an otherwise emptied stage, in a slightly hushed voice, she lost herself in the story, sounding vulnerable and fragile as she worked languorously through the poignant lyrics.
The performance was nothing short of breathtaking and provided even more goose bumps in a night filled with them.